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Torah with Morrie #8: Criticism on the Rebound

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Boruch Leff

The faults we accuse others of can most often be found within ourselves.

In 1978, Professor Morrie Schwartz was facilitating a class in sociology at Brandeis University. Morrie called the class 'Group Process.' Every week students would study how they interact with one another in areas such as anger, jealousy, sensitivity, trust, and the like.

During one class, Morrie introduced the following exercise:

"We are to stand, facing away from our classmates, and fall backward, relying on another student to catch us. Most of us are uncomfortable with this, and we cannot let go for more than a few inches before stopping ourselves. We laugh in embarrassment. Finally, one student crosses her arms over her chest, leans back, and does not flinch, like one of those Lipton iced tea commercials where the model splashes into the pool.

For a moment, I am sure she is going to thump on the floor. At the last instant, her assigned partner grabs her head and shoulders and yanks her up harshly.

'Whoa!' several students yell. Some clap. Morrie smiles.

'You see,' he says to the girl, 'you closed your eyes. That was the difference. Sometimes you cannot believe what you see, you have to believe what you feel. And if you ever are going to have people trust you, you must feel that you can trust them too-even when you're in the dark. Even when you're falling.' "

--- from Tuesdays with Morrie

If we want people to trust us, we first have to be able to trust them. If we are untrusting, that usually means that we are not completely trustworthy either. The faults we accuse others of can most often be found within ourselves.

The Talmud says, "The one who disparages does so from his own weakness" (Kiddushin 70a).

We are only able to criticize areas that make us take notice, and all too often the reason why we detect flaws in others is because we possess those very same flaws ourselves.

As the 20th century Torah scholar, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, describes:

"When you see a fault in others, turn the thinking and analysis to yourself. If you don't have the entire fault, you probably have it slightly. And even if the weakness never manifests itself into action, you have most likely pondered doing what you are criticizing. And even if you never pondered it, you almost certainly saw someone else doing it and you were pleased." (Michtav M'Eliyahu, Volume 5, page 123)

Rabbi Dessler suggests that whenever we wish to criticize someone else, we should project the criticism upon ourselves. It is impossible to detect anything in our surroundings unless we are sensitive to it. Only a talented artist will notice great beauty that would otherwise go unnoticed to a layman. Only someone who has experienced some level of pride and arrogance within himself will notice pride and arrogance in others.

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, criticize."- Anon.

This is why the Talmud instructs us to "remove the crossbeam from between our own eyes" before we choose to censure others (Baba Batra 15b). There is a Torah principle from our Sages that only sincere criticism has a chance of being effective - "words spoken from the heart enter the heart" -- and unless we first rid ourselves of the weakness we see in others, our criticism will not be accepted.

Of course, this does not mean that we must be 100% perfect before we try to help someone else become a better person. We should not refrain from offering constructive criticism when it will be conducted in privacy, with dignity and true concern for the other. But it does mean that we must never be too quick to condemn. In many circumstances, our expressions of disapproval toward others stem from faults we possess ourselves. And if we haven't struggled to eliminate a negative trait within ourselves, do we really have a right to denounce others for not doing the same?

"Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit, and a gentle soul are disciples of Abraham, our patriarch. Those who have an evil eye, a conceited spirit, and a gluttonous soul are disciples of the wicked Bilaam" (Ethics of the Fathers 5:22).

People who frequently condemn and attack may suffer from the malady of having an evil eye. Such people have a difficult time seeing success in others due to dissatisfaction within themselves. They are full of jealousy and arrogance and crave things they can never have. Thus, they can't stand to see others get the things they want and they release this negative energy by putting others down.

"A fool indicts others, looking for their faults and attributing weaknesses to them. He will never speak the praises of others or positive attributes they might possess. He is similar to the flies who hover around dirty places" (Rabeinu Yona, Gates of Repentance 3:217).

So the next time we have a critical thought of others, let's pause, reflect and see if we possess the fault we are denouncing. It may be painful to acknowledge that when we see faults in others we are admitting to faults within ourselves, but it is a powerful way to work on becoming a person of good character.


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