While serving the remarkable congregation I planted in Southern California some years ago I discovered valuable insights. This one has saved me from many a serious mistake and might help you too. Here’s what happened:
By chance, one day, I overheard a member addressing his wife with loud brusqueness. The following Shabbat, I devoted my sermon to how husbands ought to speak with wives basing my words on the Scriptural text about Elkanah and Hanna (I Samuel 1) I was gratified to notice that the husband at whom I was aiming my remarks was avidly listening to my speech. Following the service, he greeted me warmly and said, “You were probably thinking of Jacob Cohen; too bad he wasn’t in synagogue. He really needs to hear your message.”
Another time, after seeing a couple repeatedly yielding to their bratty toddler I publicly addressed the responsibilities of child-raising and how parents need to be respected more than liked. I described the situation I witnessed. To my astonishment, afterwards, those parents complimented me on my sermon and told me of a couple they knew that, “really would have benefited from hearing you.”
In these examples, both the husband and the parents were quite oblivious to the possibility that my message had any relevance to them.
Ever since then, I have assumed that I am also vulnerable in the same way. Surely I am often deaf to criticism that could help me if I were to internalize it instead of thinking of others who’d benefit from hearing it.
I shouldn’t have needed these reminders from my congregants. This lesson was originally taught to us by Cain who, along with his brother Abel, brought a sacrifice to God. God accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s because, according to ancient Jewish wisdom, Cain didn’t bring from his best.
God asked Cain why he was unhappy. And without waiting for Cain’s response, God continued:
If you will do good, all will be well, but if you don’t behave,
sin crouches at the door; you will feel attracted to it, but in the end,
you will possess the power to overcome it.
Directly after this, we read that Cain spoke to Abel his brother, but the Torah fails to tell us what he said. (Genesis 4:8) Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches several lessons from this conspicuous omission. Today’s teaching is that Cain, upon hearing God’s admonition, assumed it was meant for Abel. After all, it couldn’t have applied to him; God couldn’t possibly be displeased with him, right?
Thus, the Torah has no need to tell us what Cain said to Abel—it’s obvious. He repeated God’s message about improvement which he assumed had been meant for Abel.
Abel rejected Cain’s suggestion, insisting that the message of moral repair was meant for Cain. Hearing criticism is so painful to all human beings that in a form of totally unjustifiable self-defense, Cain lashed out at Abel and killed him.
By making this all part of one verse (4:8) the Torah emphasizes the unthinking instinct that caused Cain to react so violently to Abel’s boomeranging the criticism back at him.
Let’s recognize that our every instinct is vigorously to reject criticism. Were it not for the restraints of religion and the thin veneer of civilization that coats our egos, we’d probably kill those who criticize us.
Now, one step further:
I recommend that you positively invite criticism. Not all the time of course. Few of us have robust enough egos for regular criticism. However, seek out a work colleague or mentor (Never a spouse!) and sincerely invite a critique of your work and style. Do the same with a respected and regular visitor to your home. Sincerely invite constructive criticism of your family. Like me, you’ll be amazed at the growth possibilities.
I also recommend that you make my Thought Tool Set of two volumes part of your home library. They contain over 100 practical spiritual strategies for enhancing the quality of your life and make excellent conversation starters. They make wonderful gifts and this week the set is available for the price of one volume!