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How to Criticize
by Yosef Y. Jacobson

A couple had two little mischievous boys, ages 8 and 10. They were always getting into trouble, and their parents knew that if any mischief occurred in their town, their sons would get the blame.

The boys' mother heard that a rabbi in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her boys. The rabbi agreed and asked to see them individually.

So, the mother sent her 8-year-old first, in the morning, with the older boy to see the rabbi in the afternoon.

The rabbi, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the younger boy down and asked him sternly, "Where is G-d?"

They boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response, sitting there with his mouth hanging open.

The rabbi repeated the question. "Where is G-d?"

Again, the boy made no attempt to answer.

So, the rabbi raised his voice some more and shook his finger in the boy's face and bellowed, "Where is G-d!?"

The boy screamed and bolted from the room. He ran directly home and dove into his closet, slamming the door behind him.

When his older brother found him in the closet, he asked, "What happened?"

The younger brother, gasping for breath, replied: "We are in real BIG trouble this time! G-d is missing, and they think we did it!"

The Blind Kohen

The Torah portion of Tazria, in the book of Leviticus, discusses the laws of tzaraat, an unusual illness, identified by a white patch appearing on the skin of a person, that was symptomatic of a profound emotional and spiritual blemish within this individual. This, plus several secondary symptoms, determined the person as being temporarily "impure," and required him or her to separate from the community and undergo an intense program of introspection and healing (1).

The Torah states (2) that only a Kohen (a priest), a descendent of Aaron, the High Priest of the tribe of Levi, was authorized to diagnose a tzaraat-leprosy and pronounce the malady as such. Even in a case where all the symptoms of the illness are clearly present and a multitude of scholars recognize it as tzaraat, the person cannot be diagnosed as possessing this malady unless a Kohen states so explicitly.

The ramifications of this biblical law are far-reaching. For example, even if the only Kohen present is blind so that he is unable to examine the person in question, a trustworthy scholar needs to report his findings to the blind Kohen, and it is only the Kohen who may pronounce the white-patched person as impure. Even if the only Kohen around is a child, lacking the knowledge and understanding required to give a diagnosis, it is only he who is entitled to make the verbal pronouncement under the instruction and guidance of an adult-scholar (3).

Why was the Kohen so indispensable to this process? Shouldn't the scholar, who is intricately familiar with the symptoms of this malady, be trusted more than a blind Kohen or a child-Kohen who can do nothing more than utter a diagnosis determined by someone else?

Conduits of blessing

More than three millennia ago the Kohanim were charged with the mission of blessing the Jewish people (4). To this day in the Holy Land, there is an interval during every morning service, at which the Kohanim spread out their hands and extend Divine blessings on their Jewish brethren. Among Diaspora Jewry, this lovely tradition is practiced only on holidays.

The Kabbalah explains (5) that the reason the Kohanim were designated to be the conduits for Divine blessings is because their souls evolve from the celestial chamber of love, granting them a unique ability to cultivate compassion and kindness toward others and hence making them uniquely suitable conduits for G-d's love and grace.

This is reason for the Jewish law which states (6) that a Kohen who is disliked by the congregation or dislikes the congregation is forbidden to bless the people, because the negative energy that surround this man may severely obstruct the flow of the blessings. Indeed, the blessing recited by the Kohanim prior to the priestly blessings states: "He (G-d) commanded us to bless his people Israel with love."

The Zohar, the basic text of the Kabbalah, explains (7) that this is also the reason for the tradition that an unmarried Kohen could not serve as an agent of the Jewish people performing the services in the Holy Temple (Beit Hamikdash) in Jerusalem. In order for the Kohen to be worthy of this extraordinary position, he needed to fully develop his innate capacity for love and selflessness, and it is only through marriage, in which one learns to share one's life with another human being, that a person is challenged to bring out his full potential for caring and affection.

When you are unmarried, you may be extremely kind and sensitive, but at the end of the day you have the luxury of retreating to your own hub and doing things your own way. Ultimately, you need not answer but to yourself, which is why so many people today opt for the single life. It is only in the institution of marriage that you are consistently called upon to take another person and their needs and feelings seriously. For a marriage to work and blossom, you can't be selfish.

That is why it was only the Married Kohen who was charged with the responsibility of serving G-d in the Jerusalem Holy Temple.  

Prerequisite for Criticism

Now we will understand why the Torah allows no one but the Kohen to diagnose another human being as suffering from an illness that renders him or her severely impure and requires them to separate from the community. The Torah is imparting to us a critical lesson: Before you diagnose another person as being spiritually ill and deserving temporary isolation, you must make sure that your heart if filled with love toward this person. For it is only then that your diagnosis and rebuke will build, rather than destroy, this person's character, and it is only then that you will no doubt search for every possible way to rehabilitate this wounded soul.

As parents, educators, spouses, employers and colleagues, we often find ourselves with the need to rebuke, denounce, criticize and sometimes punish. Yet all-too-often these are done more as an outlet for our own anger and frustration, rather than as a tool to help these people become the best they can be. We may call it discipline and justice, but if it is not based on kindness and the desire to help the other person, they may end up being more destructive than constructive.

Principals and teachers at times feel the need to expel a student from the institution, just as -- during biblical times -- the leper was dismissed from the community. Comes the Torah and declares: If you are not a Kohen, you are forbidden from issueing forth such a verdict! If you do not genuinely care for this youngster, you have no right to expel them! If you will not lose sleep over the fact that you had no choice but to dismiss a student, then it might be you who should be dismissed from your position. It is easy to define somebody as "impure" if you do not understand their pain, but it is unethical. Before you punish, you must first learn how to be a Kohen, how to really care about others.

When criticism, punishment and even dismissal are motivated by concern for the person rather than your own rage or incompetence, it will have a totally different effect on the person you are punishing. What is more important, you will not cease to labor that the situation be reversed and the individual returns to his or her potential glory.

So next time before you criticize your spouse, stop and ask yourself if you are doing it as a "Kohen," out of concern and care for them, or as a result of your stress or anger. If that is the case, you ought to remain silent until you can transcend your self-absorption and enter into the world of another human being.

(This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe from December 1984 (8)).

Footnotes:
1) See Midrashim and commentaries to the Torah portions of Tazria-Metzorah. Talmud Erchin 15b.
2) Leviticus 13:2 and Toras Kohanim and Rashi on verse. Mishnah Negaim chapter 3. Maimonidies laws of Tumas Tzaraas 9:2.
3) Toras Kohanim, Mishnah and Maimonidies cited in previous footnote.
4) Numbers 6: 22-27.
5) Zohar vol. 1 p. 256b; Vol. 3 pp. 145-147. This idea is based on Moses' expression in Deuteronomy 33:8. Cf. Sefer Halikkutim-Tzemach Tzedek under the entry of Kohanim.
6) Shlchan Aruch HaRav Orach Chaim 128:19, based on Zohar ibid.
7) Zohar vol. 3 p. 145b.
8) Likkutei Sichos vol. 27 pp. 88-91. Cf. references noted there.

 

 


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