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D’var Torah: Parashat Yitro

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In this week’s D’var Torah, the Chief Rabbi explains how great people welcome constructive criticism.

Great people welcome constructive criticism. This was certainly the case with regard to Moshe Rabbeinu.

In Parashat Yitro, we are told how, at the time of the giving of the Torah, Yitro came to visit the Israelite people. We are told that as he came into the camp, he saw the way in which Moshe led the Jewish people, and he didn’t like it. His comments opened Moshe’s eyes to appreciate how he could do much better.

While sometimes we do indeed benefit from the insights of our own ‘visitors’, it is important for those who are offering advice to be there, ‘on the scene’, if they are to have a proper understanding of our situation.

In the book of Bereshit, in reference to the building of the Tower of Babel, we are told that Hashem came down to see the city and the tower. Of course, Hashem didn’t have to ‘come down’ to see anything because he is everywhere. Our Rabbis explain that Hashem was teaching us a lesson: in order to judge a person or a situation, you need to be ‘on the scene’.

This is why, in the Ethics of the Fathers we are taught, “Al tadonit chavercha, asher tagiya limkomo”“don’t judge others until you come to their place”; until you see the context within which they are operating. Don’t presume that what is happening with you, or what you’re familiar with, is the case with regard to others.

On the other hand, there are circumstances where being part of a situation inhibits our judgement of it. That is why in Halacha we say – “ein eid na’aseh dayan” – a witness cannot serve as the judge.

For example, if there is a judge who is in a store, and he witnesses a theft, only to find that the very same thief appears before him in court. You could argue that there would be no better judge than him. But according to Halacha, he must step down from making that judgement. Why?

Because he is too close to the situation. He was ‘on the scene’, and therefore he’s not able to judge the situation in a totally objective way.

So, I believe that there are two important lessons regarding criticism that emerge out of Parashat Yitro. First of all, for those who like to give criticism; we need to understand what is happening on the scene before we offer advice. And secondly, for those who are on the receiving end of criticism; we must appreciate that sometimes we can be so embroiled in a situation that we lose our capacity to fully understand what is going on, and we should appreciate the value of the insights provided by a ‘visitor’ – even one who is just ‘popping in’ for a moment.

There’s a lovely Hebrew saying – “Orei’ach l’rega ro’eh kol pega”“a visitor who just comes in for a moment sees everything that’s going wrong.” Let’s utilise criticism in the best possible way, as Moshe Rabbeinu did, to become even better people.

Shabbat shalom.