Monday, April 13, 2020

Criticism from the Heart (Shabbos 36)

Jeremiah was one of our people’s greatest prophets.  But despite his extraordinary efforts to warn the nation of the impending destruction and desolation, his calls for repentance went unheeded.  The citizens of Jerusalem could not imagine that their lives would be disrupted as Jeremiah had forecast.  Instead of listening to his message, they found him annoying, and a nuisance to their daily lives.

What did they do?  First, they sent him to prison on trumped up allegations.  “Jeremiah was going to leave Jerusalem and go to the territory of Benjamin to share in some property there among the people. When he got to the Benjamin Gate, there was a guard officer there named Irijah son of Shelemiah son of Hananiah, who arrested the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “You are defecting to the Chaldeans!” Jeremiah answered, “That’s a lie! I’m not defecting to the Chaldeans!” But Irijah would not listen to him; he arrested Jeremiah and brought him to the officials.  The officials were furious with Jeremiah; they beat him and put him into prison, in the house of the scribe Jonathan—for it had been made into a jail. Thus Jeremiah came to the pit and the cells, and Jeremiah remained there a long time.”

His stay in prison, however, did not discourage him from his mission to warn the people and endeavour to awaken within them the desire to repent.  “Thus said Hashem: This city shall be delivered into the hands of the king of Babylon’s army, and he shall capture it.”  This declaration only made matters worse for Jeremiah. The officials said to the king, “Let that man be put to death, for he disheartens the soldiers and all the people who are left in this city, by speaking such things to them. That man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm!” King Zedekiah replied, “He is in your hands; the king cannot oppose you in anything!” So they took Jeremiah and cast him down into the pit of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the prison compound; they let Jeremiah down by ropes. There was no water in the pit, only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud” (Jeremiah 38).

וּמַאי שׁוֹפָר — נָמֵי חֲצוֹצְרוֹת. כִּדְרַב חִסְדָּא. דְּאָמַר רַב חִסְדָּא: הָנֵי תְּלָת מִילֵּי אִישְׁתַּנִּי שְׁמַיְיהוּ מִכִּי חֲרַב בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ: ״חֲצוֹצַרְתָּא״ — ״שׁוֹפָרָא״, ״שׁוֹפָרָא״ — ״חֲצוֹצַרְתָּא״.
What is the meaning of the word ‘shofar’? It refers to trumpets, in accordance with the teaching of Rav Chisda.  For Rav Chisda said: There are three objects whose names changed when the Holy Temple was destroyed. That which was called trumpet was called shofar, and that which was called shofar was called trumpet.  

Why would the people have swapped around the names for shofar and trumpet?  The switch resulted from their responses to the sounds of each.  The purpose of a shofar is to awaken people to improve their ways, as the Prophet Amos declares, “If a shofar is blown in the city, would the people not tremble?”   In this vein, the Divrei Chaver ben Chaim explains that the Holy Temple was destroyed as a result of the people’s failure to heed the exhortations of the prophets.  The sounding of the shofar symbolizes the prophetic call to reawaken religious commitment amongst the people.

When the people shut out the strong message of the prophets to repent, the prophets realized that they needed to soften their tone.  This is the meaning, says the Divrei Chaver, of the switch from shofar to trumpet.  The shofar emits a shrill, piercing sound.  Trumpets sound a more pleasant tune.  Following the destruction of the Holy Temple, the Rabbis understood that the message must be delivered in softer, more soothing tones.  Sadly, he concludes, even the soft messages were eventually rejected by the people.  That’s the meaning of the Gemara’s statement that the trumpet switched to be called a shofar.  Even the soft criticisms were heard by the people as sharp attacks.

We are all providers and receivers of criticism.  We are criticizers and criticizees of our spouses.  We are criticizers and criticizees of our friends.  We are criticizers and criticizees of our work colleagues.   We criticize our children.  We are criticized by our parents.  And every time we offer criticism, we think of it as constructive critique.  We only want the best for the other person.  But somehow, when we’re on the receiving end, it doesn’t feel like that.  It feels like they’re attacking us. How do we strike the right balance so that constructive critique is not an exercise in futility?

The key to offering advice and being constructive is, firstly, to ensure that the words don’t sound like the sharp sound of the shofar.  Before offering any criticism, you need to ask yourself, ‘How would I react if someone said to me what I’m about to say to them?’  If you then conclude that it might come across a little too harsh or strong, you need to figure out how to transform it from the sound of a shofar to the sound of a trumpet. 

The greatest trumpeter of all time was Louis Armstrong, who was no stranger to criticism.  Armstrong took criticism seriously, to the extent that he would personally record interviews with his critics to assess later whether the criticism was justified and helpful to his growth as an artist, or a meaningless attack, that served no constructive purpose. 

His most famous song, ‘What a Wonderful World,’ describes the tension of a life that acknowledges that without criticism, there is no growth:

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They're really saying I love you

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

In the first stanza, Armstrong sings that the trees and flowers don’t start out that way.  They need to bloom to reach their state of perfection.  In the second stanza, he looks up to the blue sky and acknowledges the presence of clouds.  He then praises the sacredness of the dark hours of our lives, which bring out the best in us, making the day even brighter. 

In the next verse, he pays tribute to the rainbow, a symbol of God’s commitment never to destroy the world again.  The appearance of the rainbow is God’s silent critique to us, His message that we could be doing better.  When friends shake one another’s hands, and question how do they do whatever they are doing, we must understand that any implied criticism that we feel resentful about is coming from a place of love. 

In the final stanza, he acknowledges that babies will cry when they don’t get what they want.  But we can’t give them everything they want just because they cry.  We have a responsibility to advise them and teach them right from wrong.  When we discipline with love, ‘they’ll learn much more’ and we will merit to ‘watch them grow.’

Our Sages tell us that nobody knows how to criticize effectively anymore.  Because any criticism must be a complete act of selfless love for the other person, and most of us are unable to put our own proclivities aside and think purely about what’s best for another individual.  Nevertheless, “words that emerge from the heart will enter the heart.” 

If you’ve tried to advise and your advice has gone unheeded, it means your words were not truly from the heart.  But with self-reflection and introspection, you can change that.  May you become a vessel and a vehicle for growth, by accepting advice with love, and dispensing advice in an even greater measure of love! 

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