Tochecha: The Courage to Give Honest Criticism

Anyone notice that stunning tapestry in the lobby when they walked in this morning? How could you not?! The tapestry was hand stitched in 1972 by a group of 49 women at the congregation, led by Evelyn Keyser, and recently restored through the generous support of RS Women. When I first walked in and saw it, I noticed the beauty, the bright burst of color, the craftsmanship. But what really wowed me were the words. At the top, it says, “Ohev shalom v’rodeph shalom – Love peace and pursue peace.” These same words appear on our new addition, looking out on Broad Street. This quote, from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors) was written almost 2000 years ago and still remains at our core today.

At the bottom of the tapestry are the words of Leviticus 19, “K’doshim tih’yu ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem – You shall be holy for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” This verse is from the Torah portion, K’doshim, often called the Holiness Code, which we will read at the afternoon service. K’doshim is often called the physical and spiritual center of our Torah. Physical – because it is situated almost exactly in the middle of the Torah scroll. And spiritual – because this portion contains the core teachings from our tradition about ethical living.

We are holy, because God is holy. But what does it mean to be holy? To pray? To study Torah? All good things, but according to Leviticus 19, holiness is found in our honest dealings with our neighbors. We are holy when we leave the corners of our fields, when we refrain from cursing the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind. We are holy when we have honest weights and measures and just courts. We are holy when we respect our elders. And when strangers dwell with us in our land, we shall not wrong them. This is what it means to be holy.

Among the many moral commands in the Holiness Code, there is one that struck me as I looked at the tapestry, “Hochayach tochi’ach amitecha – You will surely reprove your friend…” Reprove, rebuke, or tochecha, as we call it in Hebrew, is unsolicited advice; a spoken frankness that reveals a fixable flaw.  The purpose of giving tochecha is to point out an important truth that someone just seems to keep missing. It is one of Judaism’s most spiritual practices, not to be dished out carelessly or in anger, but with genuine concern for another human being.

This command is the link between between the quote at the top of the tapestry and the quote at the bottom. How shall you be holy? By seeking peace. And how do we seek peace? Through tochecha. Contrary to conventional thinking, tochecha is the path to loving peace and pursuing it.

Fundamentally, tochecha is a mitzvah of connection — a cornerstone of healthy relationships and strong community. If we can trust our neighbors to tell us the truth lovingly, and if we can hear a reprimand with calm consideration, then our path to one of Judaism’s most sought after spiritual destinations, shalom, peace and wholeness, is well paved. As the Talmudic sage, Resh Lakish said, “Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace.” (Bereshit Rabbah 54:3)

Imagine your loved one has a character flaw that drives you crazy; probably not that hard to do! What do you do? You have a few options:

  1. Say nothing and just bottle up your concerns and feelings. You definitely can’t help your loved one by holding back and you may even find yourself getting upset with them because you are holding on to that resentment.
  2. Vent to other people about the issue. This might make you feel better but doesn’t actually help the situation and furthermore, it can lead to one of Judaism’s most reviled sins, lashon hara or gossip.
  3. Choose the difficult path of confrontation and talk to your loved one about his or her actions and why they are upsetting you.

Pirkei Avot tells us to, “Love peace and pursue peace.” Peace does not mean a lack of conflict – in fact, sometimes it requires it. Sometimes to truly rodeph shalom, to seek peace, we must confront our loved ones with hard truths.

Let me tell you a story…

This summer we served over 600 meals to children in need in our own backyard. With generous support from congregants, Robert Schwartz and Judith Creed, and through a partnerships with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the ‘Breaking Bread on Broad’ program provided meals, educational activities, and a safe space for neighborhood youth.

Breaking Bread on Broad was staffed by congregation volunteers and we were blessed with the lay and professional leadership of Eric Dickstein and Jeremy Schmidt. We also hired three neighborhood teens as interns. However, the interns that we hired had some shortcomings. But nobody is perfect – isn’t that what today is all about?

Specifically, how did these interns miss the mark? Well first, they were teens! Anyone who has parented or worked with teens knows some of the potential issues – they were immature, showed up late, constantly played on their phones, in general they were unprofessional… let me give you an example.

A congregational volunteer came in to teach yoga to the students. On her first visit, the interns didn’t want to participate along with the younger students. Not only did they refuse to participate but they actually sat around mocking the younger children who were bravely trying something new.

This was the first week of the summer. However, by the end of the summer when we had another yoga session, the interns were totally engaged. They volunteered to do the yoga without any prodding and they had fun doing it. One teen was even laughing, no longer at the younger kids, but because he was having so much fun.

So what happened in between those two yoga classes? Tochecha. Jeremy and Eric worked with the interns to help them develop into young leaders. Some would have given up; I’ll be blunt – there was a brief time, when Jeremy, Eric and I were ready to give up on these teens. We’d had it. They were disrespectful, unprofessional, and not only were they not helping the program, they were actually hindering it.

I think we can all relate to that feeling. A spouse, a child, a parent, a coworker, someone in our lives that we care about, is doing it all wrong. We want to help them but we are so frustrated we think it will just be easier to give up. And it will be – it would have been easier for Jeremy and Eric to just give up. But our tradition commands us not to stand idly by, “Hochayach tochi’ach amitecha – You will surely reprove your friend…”

According to Estelle Frankel, a psychotherapist and Jewish educator:

Tochecha — the art of giving and receiving honest feedback or rebuke — is part of the biblical formula for sustaining friendships and relationships. According to the talmudic rabbis, it is an integral part of love; without tochecha, love cannot endure. (Bereshit Raba 54:3) I see evidence of this every day while counselling wedding couples. Those who are skilled at giving and receiving feedback are able to sustain healthy relationships over the long term, while those who lack such skills are ill-equipped to deal with relationship challenges when they arise.

Tochecha requires great integrity and impeccable communication skills. It also requires the use of an array of psychological capacities and virtues, including humility, empathy, mindfulness, courage, non-defensiveness, and integration. While some individuals welcome tochecha as an opportunity for self-improvement, most people defend against having their shortcomings pointed out to them, and they will employ a range of psychological defenses, including denial and projection, to protect themselves from the pain of reproof.  We increase the likelihood that our words will be heard by paying attention to three things: our timing, tone, and intention.

Timing: The rabbis teach that just as it is a mitzvah to offer words of tochecha when our words are likely to be heard, it is a mitzvah to stay silent when our words will not be heard. (Yevamot 65) Before speaking, we need to be mindful of our own emotional state as well as that of the listener. If we are emotionally triggered or angry, or notice that the listener is in a state of agitation, it is better to wait for a more opportune time.

Tone: A voice that is angry, disdainful, blaming, or judgmental can undermine our message. It is better to communicate tochecha with humility and empathy. Remembering that we are all flawed and that we all possess the capacity for wrongdoing is key. When possible, offer feedback and insight as an equally imperfect individual — no better or worse than anyone else. As it says in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2, Mishnah 5), “Do not judge your neighbors until you have stood in their place.”

Intention: Tochecha is not simply a matter of venting; rather, it involves a conscious effort to heal a breach in a relationship or to help others to awaken to their spiritual and moral deficits. Tochecha is most effective when we make use of our psychological capacity for integration — the ability to see ourselves and others as whole beings with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. With integration, we do not define people by their mistakes and flaws; rather, we point out specific criticisms at the same time that we remember the person’s essential goodness. When giving tochecha, it is helpful to express our loving concern, respect, and appreciation alongside any critique. Doing so reduces defensiveness and any sense that the criticism is an assault on the individual’s character.  (From: Sh’ma Now: A Journal of Jewish Sensibilities, November 2016 | V.47 No. 721)

During the High Holy Days we end our service with a section called, “hakarat hatov – remembering the good.” After beating ourselves up all day, we need a reminder that we have merit, we are not defined by our faults. The same is true when offering tochecha to loved ones.

So how did Jeremy and Eric apply these principles? First, they thought about timing and pulled the interns aside, privately at the end of the day. And when issues came up during the day, they never spoke to the interns in front of the younger children, in an effort to never embarrass our interns. It is so hard to hear criticism – imagine how much harder it is to hear it if you are feeling embarrassed. Avoiding shame and embarrassment is crucial to practicing tochecha and core to our Jewish tradition, so much so that the Talmud states “He who publicly shames his neighbour is as though he shed blood.” (Bava Metzia 58b)

In those private meetings, Jeremy and Eric told the interns that their behavior was unacceptable – they were honest with them because they cared about these young men and their futures. The intention of this encounter was not one of anger or frustration but of love. I wonder how many teachers, parents, coaches, and other adults in their lives never said anything. Never reprimanded them because they didn’t care enough to do it or because they naively thought the path of peace is one without confrontation.

Next they coached the interns. Using the right tone, they didn’t just tell them what they were doing wrong but told them how to do it right. And of course, when the interns did get it right, Jeremy and Eric gave them positive reinforcement.

Lastly, Jeremy and Eric showed the interns a tremendous amount of respect and honor.  One Friday, towards the end of the summer, we were having a small internal issue and it appeared that the weekly paychecks for the interns were not going to be ready by the end of the day. Jeremy was relentless, and said, “This is not right, we have to get those interns their paychecks. This is part of the deal I made with them and if they are going to honor me, I need to honor them and agree to my end of the bargain.”  We did get the checks out in time, keeping with another law in the Holiness Code, “You shall not keep a worker’s wage with you until morning.” (Leviticus 19:13)

Hopefully this story has got you thinking about your own relationships. When you see a fault in someone how do you react? How do we actually get people to change? Does posting on Facebook work? Does yelling at people work? Shaming them? When we practice tochecha, who are we doing it for? It is not always so easy in the moment but we must constantly ask ourselves before giving criticism, who is this for? Is the timing and tone right? What are my intentions? Will this person actually listen? How can I give feedback in the most thoughtful, least humiliating way?

In this season of repentance, we spend so much of our time focused on how we can improve ourselves. We do this, not to be selfish, but because we want to be better people for our loved ones. Similarly, if we truly love our parent, sibling, spouse, child, friend, it is our obligation to help them improve.

Long before Jesus ever said it, the Holiness Code states, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, this is the verse that immediately follows the commandment of tochecha. If we are to truly love our neighbors, it means helping them with the same sort of personal character development that we want for ourselves during this season and throughout our lives.  It means being holy, by loving peace and pursuing peace – peace that can only come from careful, loving confrontation.

This New Year, may we have the strength and courage to be holy like God, to love peace and pursue it, to reprove our loved ones, to tell them, in the most thoughtful of ways, the hard truths that they so desperately need to hear.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.