The Silent Sneer

Have you ever been put down by a silent sneer? Have you ever sensed harsh criticism in nothing more than a raised eyebrow? Have you ever felt your value as a person, as a friend, or as a relative minimized by someone finding fault in you or dismissing an achievement of yours as insignificant?

We’ve all been hurt by insults and criticism. Now, how about the other way around? Do you find too much fault with others? Do your children fear telling you of their activities and their thoughts? Are you far more lavish with criticism than praise?

If so, though you may be unaware, your friends, family, and co-workers may subconsciously avoid spending more time with you than they absolutely must.

If so, you are dogged by invisible forces that impede your progress. These forces place barriers in your way and suck the joy out of your existence. When life is good, it is often because we are surrounded by individuals who like us and want things to go well for us. They place opportunities in our way, they introduce us to people, and they correct false impressions about us. All of this takes place outside our awareness.

However when the individuals who populate the broader reaches of our life view us as constantly critical, they may respect us, they may love us, but they feel less comfortable with us. Naturally, they do not go out of their way to help us.

Though they may not do anything actually to hurt us, merely the absence of their active support translates into hidden specters that obstruct much of what we seek in life. The good news is that we can change this.

Ancient Jewish wisdom offers this helpful gem. In every interaction, give the other person the benefit of the doubt, the support and the praise that we would want him to give us if the situation was reversed. Be as generous in judging the actions of others as we tend to be when judging our own actions.

Let me explain with the help of Scripture:

You shall do no evil in judgment in matters of length, weight, or volume.
You shall have just scales, just weights, a just measure for dry goods,
and a just measure for liquids…….
(Leviticus 19:35-36)

In other words, we may not use a fraudulently light weight when we sell and a heavier one when we buy. God wants us to do business with scrupulous honesty. That seems perfectly clear, doesn’t it? This seems to make the following verses redundant:

You may not have in your pocket two weights,
a larger one and a smaller one. You may not have in your house
two measures, 
a larger one and a smaller one.
Only one full and just weight shall you have and
one full and just measure…..
(Deuteronomy 25:13-15)

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that the Deuteronomy verses go beyond commerce. These verses are talking of false weights, not in the market place, but in our pockets and homes. These verses teach us not to use one weight or measure by judging ourselves leniently and a different harsher weight or measure when judging someone else.

Of course, some of us have exactly the opposite problem. We judge others graciously and are brutal when looking at ourselves. We constantly beat ourselves up for human failings rather than granting ourselves forgiveness. Paradoxically, this makes it harder for us to correct our failings and improve our behavior.

When you find yourself about to put someone down with a silent sneer or a raised eyebrow, or whenever you are about to find fault with someone, remember to use only one set of weights and measures. You will astound your friends, please your family and delight those who share your workplace, including yourself.

revised and reprinted from May 2009

21 thoughts on “The Silent Sneer”

  1. I am now 81 and it is only recently that I have come to understand why I have been so critical of others over the years. Like a good pharisee I too put myself under a series of self-made laws and then criticized others that didn’t obey the same rules. Thank God that He was finally able to expose that social crime and set me free.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank God for setting you free, Harold,
      Now you can REALLY start living!

  2. Dear Rabbi, this is an area I struggled with for years. First with my mother then with my brother who seems to have picked up mom’s mantle since she died, sort of like Elisha picked up Elijah’s mantle but not with such godly and felicitous results. After years of counseling for depression, I finally began to understand that I had the same worth as every other human being. I also came to understand that I needed to set boundaries. I would love to say that all is well between my brother and me now, but it isn’t. I would love to lower the fence and communicate heart to heart, sharing memories of the past, and working to heal our mutual wounds. But, I have learned not to lower the fence, because as surely as I do, BOOM. In saying this, please understand that my brother has many fine qualities. He can be generous and loving. He is both intelligent and talented in many areas. But his intelligence has gone to his head. With his family, he always knows better than anyone else. Every conversation becomes a lecture. Where we disagree, he will shake his head and the sneer is not always silent. By now, he has antagonized and alienated just about everyone in the family. I would love to find some way to get through to him, but I have been hurt so many times and so deeply, I don’t know that I have it in me to do more than pray for divine intervention. In any case, I am quite convinced he would not “hear” what I have to say in any case. If you have any wisdom to share, I am more than ready to receive it.

    1. Joyce – If your name wasn’t on that post, it could have been written by me! I can completely relate to what you’ve said, as I had the same issues with my own brother.

      He had a genius IQ – if I had to guess, I’d say around 160. But he was bi-polar and also an alcoholic. Because he was a lawyer, there was just no arguing with him because he “won” every debate (even when he was wrong). Unfortunately, he died of cancer last year and we were never able to heal the many wounds.

      For me, there’s no fixing the problems – not any more. And I sorely regret that I didn’t fly up to see him sooner (even though he said he didn’t want to talk with me). He died as my flight was touching down at the airport. (I think that was his last “screw you!” to me, although I know I shouldn’t take it that way. It was just his time to go.) But my heart aches every time I think of him – and I try to remember the (few) good times we had rather than dwell on all of the times he belittled me, berated me, accused me of things I never did, etc. Because I didn’t finish college, I was always inconsequential in his eyes. And yet he had no problem associating with all of his “drinking buddies” at his favorite bar. (I sometimes wonder if it was because he felt superior to them and could lord it over them.)

      If you love your brother (or if you care) I urge you to try to make small attempts at reconciliation because we never know what tomorrow may bring.

      Please… learn from my mistakes! Don’t let too much time go by before you try to patch things up. And if you can’t get things worked out, at least you’ll know you tried!

      1. Dear mr Lapin,

        Thanks for the positive post. I want to speak on the podcast. One of the reasons i listen every weak is because you speak in a calm pace yet you express tone variety in a delightful way. I dont know what happened to the recording but it sounds unusually fast paced. I was so mad, please sir can irt be fixed. I cant listen to it now it sounds jittery.

        Wow your stories touched my heart… dear Joyce and Judi. I have a husband who is just impossible. Like animalistic he mistakes mercy and asituation where he has to explain orders as ‘my being dominated or the weak one’. He loves to shout orders and feel like he rules. Soon he will over nobody though. He has caused me to become more independent and looking to secure my future separately from him because at this point i dont trust his character. Some people are just unreasonable. They dont change they just change the people around them to suit their ego. Dont feel bad. Im certain i have many blind spots. So im not saying this from a moral ivory tower.

        I am dealing with sin and character issues myself. But that doesnt mean that i have to endure being treated like dirt.

      2. Judi, bless you for sharing. Thankfully, I am not completely cut off. In fact, we had a pleasant conversation the other day when I called to wish him happy birthday. The problem is being able to discuss those things that really matter, like our mother’s sudden death from a heart attack many years ago and the impact that had on both our lives, what happens to a person after they die, whether we will be reunited with them, the need to be forgiven for our sins against God and each other . . . . These are not easy issues for anyone to face, let alone discuss, but my brother needs to talk about them to someone. I don’t even think it needs to be me, just someone who can help him. I pray for him and have placed the matter in God’s hands, but I would love to know my brother is on the path to restoration.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Joyce–
      Try writing him a letter rather than talking in person. He will be able to read it less defensively than when he hears it from your mouth.

  3. Thank you my rabbi. Always a blessing to connect with you, our virtual congregation, and some priceless ancient Jewish wisdom.

    When somebody looks at me with a silent sneer, I’m tempted to tell them: “I’ll thank you not to look at me in that tone of voice.” On a few rare occasions, I’ve actually voiced it them. You won’t be surprised to know that’s none of these occasional folks happened to be wearing a 3-piece patch on the back of their motorcycle jacket.

  4. Susan Gilliland

    Hilarious how once again your thought tool is perfectly timed. Family arguments can be more stressful than ones with friends. Friends you can avoid sometimes till things blow over, not always so with family. Thanks again for the “gentle” reminder of our responsibility first! Do unto others as you would have them do. Very true.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Synchronicity is a funny thing, Susan,
      Much of what Susan and I write must be triggered by thoughts both conscious and subconscious in our own lives. I think our families have many similarities.

  5. Great essay, and great observation in the middle of it: ‘We judge others graciously and are brutal when looking at ourselves.

    It’s a struggle here. How to have a high sense of ethics, a lively conscience, and not be overly harsh on ourselves? Sometimes, I wake up at night and memories of decades ago arise, and I can see how one or another incidence of bad judgement from then still impacts people I love today. I try not to dwell on it, and try harder to do better today than yesterday–but it is still a struggle some days.

    Any further words of wisdom?


    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Knox-
      You know the answers as well as I do. Worry, aggravation and regrets don’t change yesterday but they can strip the joy and potential of today.
      Anything in the past that you can fix, do so. For the rest, as you rightly say, make tomorrow better by doing right today. Wishing you easier sleeping

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      You’re welcome Jason,
      thanks for writing. It’s appreciated.

      1. Very timely
        “Tell it like it is”
        This becomes distorted into mouthiness , which helps nobody. ASL (American Sign Language) ,and other disabled communications, has parts that address communication in tonal, visual face reading, and body language. “With a look, a king chases evil.” fr Prov. Again, Very timely. A good preventative medicine.

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