Criticism the Right Way

January 31, 2021

4 min read


Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

Rashi, 18:1, Dh: And Yitro heard: “…His name was also Yeter, because he added one section to the Torah, [that beginning with] ‘and you will see.’”
Shemot, 18:17: “The father-in-law of Moshe said to him, ‘the thing that you do is not good...’
Shemot, 18:21: “And you will see from among the entire people, men of accomplishment…”

The Portion begins with the reaction of Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, to the miracles that the Jewish people experienced on their journeys out of Egypt. Rashi notes that Yitro had seven names, and one of them was ‘Ytser’, meaning ‘additional’. Rashi explains that this name was given him because he merited to ‘add’ a whole section in the Torah, later in the Portion - which Rashi describes as the section starting with ‘and you will see’ - when he suggested a new system of judgement to replace the present system whereby Moshe would deal with every case. Thus, this name is a great praise to Yitro for achieving such a unique feat of adding a whole new section to the Torah. However, a question on Rashi’s explanation arises: When Rashi refers to the passage where Yitro made his suggestion, he seems to begin in the middle of the passage. The passage begins with Yitro telling Moshe in Chapter 18, verse 17, “The thing that you do is not good…” Only four verses later in verse 21, does he say, “And you will see”. Why does Rashi not describe Yitro’s suggestion from the beginning of the dialogue between Yitro and Moshe?

One Torah Scholar answered that this passage is coming to praise Yitro for his meriting to add a section in the Torah. The first four verses of the passage involving Yitro are not positive words, rather they are words of criticism of what was wrong with the existing system. Only in verse 21, does he begin to propose a new system of judges. The praise of Yitro is not for his criticism because it is very easy to criticize without giving any constrictive ideas, rather he is applauded for offering an alternative. This teaches a very important lesson – seeing what’s wrong with the situation does not require any great character traits, indeed, it often indicates an ayin rah – a propensity to focus on the negative in an unhealthy way. However, discerning how to rectify the problems requires an ability to think positively and constructively.

It is apparent that the character trait of being critical can be used for the good or for the bad. Based on this idea, we see that one aspect of using it for the good is that it should be the springboard for positive change. Indeed, Rabbi Yerucham Levovits, the Mashgiach (spiritual guide) of the Mirrer Yeshiva, writes that Yitro was a highly critical person but he used it for the good.1

One way of discerning whether a person uses a trait in the correct way is if he only applies it to other people or if he uses it to improve himself. The wrong way of applying one’s critical nature is if a person only uses it to see what is wrong with everyone else but does not use it to analyze his own failings or mistakes. Yitro used his critical nature to question whether he was living in the correct way and to search for the truth. The Sages tell us that he worshipped every type of idol and he realized that they were all false. And when he recognized the correctness of the Torah, he did not allow himself to ignore the implication of that truth, rather he admitted that he had been wrong in his beliefs and he changed his whole lifestyle and joined the Jewish people.

In Torah, the trait of being critical is essential to one’s Torah learning and general life outlook. There is no place in Judaism for blindly accepting what one hears without questioning it and trying to understand it. A person with a critical nature is more likely to come to the truth.2 Moreover, we learn from Yitro that using a critical eye in a positive way is the platform for achieving necessary changes in the world. Yitro saw what was wrong with the system of judgment and did not suffice with criticizing it, rather he sought and found an alternative. Indeed, it seems that all the great achievers among the Jewish people saw what was wrong with a certain situation and did something positive to rectify it. The following story illustrates one of the most striking examples of this.

There was once a meeting of many of the leading Rabbis of the generation and the descendants of the leaders of the previous one, including the Chofetz Chaim. Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna, the great Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron, stood up to speak and he surprised everyone, saying that there was one person who had achieved more for the Jewish people than everyone who was present, and their illustrious ancestors. Moreover, he confidently asserted that once he would tell the audience who it was, they would all agree. Who was this great person?

It was Sarah Shenirer; she was a seemingly ordinary woman who lived at a time where there was no formal Torah education for Jewish girls. Consequently, young women from observant families were leaving Torah in great numbers. The scale of this tragedy was magnified by the fact that many Torah scholars were unable to find an appropriate match given the lack of suitable women. It is no exaggeration to say that the very future of the Jewish people was in great danger. Sarah Shenirer recognized the threat, questioned the status quo, and, amidst great opposition founded the first network of Torah schools for girls, Beit Yaakov. With the guidance of leading Sages, such as the Chofetz Chaim and the Gerrer Rebbe, she succeeded beyond her wildest expectations and, effectively assured the future of Torah observance. Surely, many people were aware of the serious situation at the time, but only Sarah Shenirer applied the trait of criticism to motivate herself to find a positive solution.

The examples of Yisro and Sarah Shenirer teach us how to apply criticism in a positive way.

  1. Daat Torah, Yitro, pp.181-2.
  2. Of course, this is on condition that he is intellectually honest and does not use his critical nature as an excuse to justify his biases. In addition, one must be very careful when criticizing other people, that it is done in a sensitive way and that the person’s best interests are in mind.
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