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Parashat Kedoshim: Giving Criticism

The Torah in Parashat Kedoshim (19:17) issues the famous command of "Hoche’ah Tochi’ah Et Amitecha," which requires giving rebuke to a fellow Jew whom one sees transgressing the Torah. Judaism does not subscribe to the notion of "live and let live," that we can worry only about ourselves and ignore what our fellow Jews are doing. Rather, we are bound together and comprise a single entity, such that one person’s behavior affects us all. Therefore, we are responsible to do what we can to correct other people’s misbehavior and lead them toward the proper path of religious observance.

Immediately after issuing this command, the Torah adds, "Ve’lo Tisa Alav Het," which is commonly understood to mean, "you shall not bear guilt on his account." Some, however, explain this phrase differently, as instructing, "do not elevate the sin over him." Many times, when we offer criticism, we think our words will be more effective if we magnify the severity of the act, and impress upon the person just how grievous a sin he committed. We feel that by emphasizing the sin’s severity, the individual will be more likely to accept our criticism. But the Torah here tells us that the precise opposite is true. The more we magnify the act, the more we belittle the person. If a person is told he committed a grievous offense, he loses his sense of worth as well as his hope of change. The key to effective criticism is not building up the offense, but rather building up the person. We need to convey the message that we genuinely admire and think highly of the person, and that we feel he could do better. And therefore the Torah warns, "Ve’lo Tisa Alav Het" – that we ensure not to blow the sin he committed out of proportion, and to focus on the person’s great potential rather on the severity of the wrongful act he committed.

This is an especially important lesson when it comes to educating children. Children are especially insecure and vulnerable. They can very easily fall into despair and consider themselves permanent failures if they are told they did something horrible. When a child misbehaves, the proper response is to build him up, rather than knock him down. The emphasis must be on how good he is, not on how bad his conduct has been. By following the timeless exhortation of "Ve’lo Tisa Alav Het," we make it possible for our criticism to achieve the desired result, and not, Heaven forbid, the opposite.

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