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Parashat Kedoshim: The Right Way to Criticize

One of the commands that we read in Parashat Kedoshim is the obligation of "Hochi’ah Tochi’ah Et Amitecha" – to "rebuke" those who act improperly (19:17). The Torah does not subscribe to the belief that what other people do is not our concern. The Jewish Nation consists of millions of individuals, but we all comprise a single entity, and we are thus all responsible for one another. Hence, if we observe somebody acting inappropriately and violating the Torah, we are commanded to approach the person to correct his behavior.

However, the Torah immediately adds after introducing this command, "Ve’lo Tisa Alav Het" – "Do not bear a sin on his account." This means that we must not commit a sin by criticizing our fellow for a sin he committed. We are not allowed to humiliate a fellow Jew in the course of criticizing him, or to lead him to commit worse sins. Criticism is permitted only if we are able to give it in a proper and effective manner. It does not give us license to embarrass somebody or to make him angry, which will only have the effect of leading him to additional sins.

There is a famous story told about the Hafetz Haim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, 1839-1933) that exemplifies the proper approach that we must have to this Misva. A Rabbi in the United States was once giving a speech in which he mentioned an incident that took place in the Hafetz Haim’s yeshiva, when a student was found smoking a cigarette on Shabbat. The Hafetz Haim heard about what happened and called the boy into his office. The boy arrived, spoke with the Rabbi for a few moments, and then left, completely changed. He never again even dreamed of smoking on Shabbat, and he grew to become a fully observant and devoted Jew. After telling this story, the Rabbi lamented the fact that we do not know what the Hafetz Haim said to this student. If we did know, we would perhaps have the key to effectively influencing today’s young people to embrace Torah observance.

After the Rabbi finished his talk, an elderly man approached him.

"I am that boy," he told the Rabbi. "I was the student in the Hafetz Haim’s yeshiva who was caught smoking."

The Rabbi excitedly asked the man, "So what did he tell you? How did the Hafetz Haim convince you to stop violating Shabbat?"

The man’s response stunned the Rabbi. "As soon as I walked in," the man told, "the Hafetz Haim took my hand and held it tightly. With tears streaming down his face, he looked lovingly into my eyes and said, ‘Shabbos. Shabbos. Shabbos.’ That was all. He did not shout at me, he was not angry at me, and he did not lecture me. He just said, ‘Shabbos. Shabbos. Shabbos.’ I saw his sincerity and his pain, and I felt the hot tears fall from his face onto my hand, and I could never bring myself to smoke on Shabbat again."

This story has since become quite well-known, and it must inform the way we approach the delicate subject of criticism. The way to effectively encourage a change of behavior is not through anger and harsh criticism. This will, most likely, result in hostility and resentment, which will lead the person to go further in the opposite direction. The proper way is through love and sincerity. This is particularly true in our generation, when people are especially sensitive and emotionally fragile, and are so easily hurt and offended. If we want to promote change, we must follow the inspiring example of the Hafetz Haim, the example of showing love and concern for all our fellow Jews, regardless of their level of observance, and displaying our passion for Torah and Misvot and their centrality in our lives. This approach will, please G-d, gradually have the effect of bringing our fellow Jews back to Torah observance, so that we will be worthy of our long-awaited final redemption, speedily and in our days, Amen.

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