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We must remember that criticism is difficult for everyone to hear, and even more difficult to accept.So if it must be offered, remember to do it in the right way, so your words enter the heart of the recipient!

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Yitro” (Exodus 18:1-20:23) and in addition to the Revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments it also tells the story of Yitro, known in English as “Jethro,” Moses’ father in law.

We read how Jethro joined the Jewish people when they were encamped at Sinai where he is welcomed to the “club” by Moses. One of Moses’ primary occupations at the time was judging the people and presiding over every legal dispute – all day. Every day. Jethro famously tells Moses that he will “burn out” if he keeps on with this and instead advises him to appoint a committee of judges that will take over. They would save the really hard cases for Moses to decide.

Let’s take a look at the important parts of this exchange:

“Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people…And Jethro came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God…The next day Moses sat to judge the people: the people stood before Moses from morning until evening.

“When Moses’ father-in-law saw this he said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone and all the people stand before you from morning until evening?’ So, Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘The thing that you do is not good. Both you and the people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out…’

“Listen now to my voice, I will give you counsel, and God will be with you: select from all the people able men that fear God, men of truth who hate bribery, and place them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they will bring to you, but every small matter they themselves will judge. This will be easier for you for they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing then you will be able to endure, and all the people will also go to their place in peace.”

This episode has been cited as the model on how one should approach the idea of offering advice to others. For example, it is noted how Jethro did not merely criticize but also offered an alternative idea. It is easy to tell someone that they are doing something wrong, and even when true, it is far more constructive to suggest an alternative approach. Don’t just mention the negative…offer some positive! Furthermore, Jethro was very specific in the idea he gave Moses. He gave many details. Jethro was essentially giving Moses a “business plan”. This teaches us that one should be well acquainted with the situation at hand before giving advice on how to change current operating procedures.

There is also the fact that we find Jethro speaking in a very gently and respectful manner when delivering his criticism. Notice how Jethro says “The thing that you do is not good” and not something like “The thing that you do is bad/dumb/crazy/insane” or the like. He speaks from a positive angle not a negative one. This is reminiscent of God who told Noah to also take into the ark animals that were “not pure” rather than say something like “impure.” It is extremely important to always speak in a refined manner.

Finally, Jethro concludes his constructive criticism with a blessing and good wishes when he says: “If you do this thing [that I advise you about reforming the judicial system], then God will direct you and you will be able to endure and all the people will also go to their place in peace.” (18:23). Concluding criticism in this manner will show the recipient that one is giving the criticism not for his own interests but truly for the interest of the person he is speaking to. People are more likely to accept criticism when they know you have their well-being at heart. Jethro made it clear that his concern was exclusively for Moses and the Jewish people.

We must remember that criticism is difficult for everyone to hear, and even more difficult to accept. However, sometimes offering criticism is truly in the other person’s interest and should be done. Just remember to do it in the right way and your words will likely enter the heart of the recipient!

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