Rabbi Tarfon, a member of the third generation of the Mishnah sages, once said “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to accept tochecha?” Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, a 1st-century CE Palestinian Mishnaic sage, added, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to give tochecha?” (Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 16b). Tochecha, at times translated as reproach or admonishment, is the mitzvah of compassionate critique in the Jewish religion. The general injunction against negative speech, lashon hara, (“you shall not wrong one another” in Leviticus 25:17) does not negate tochecha because the latter is focused on how the correction is made. “Although you are required to reprove wrongdoers, you will be sinning if you do it the wrong way. Be careful not to embarrass them” (Rashi; Sifra).
“These quotes could have been written today,” says Ann Pava, Chair of National Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), as she recently reflected on her study of tochecha through her participation in her local Federation’s Lion of Judah Chai Mitzvah class.
Chai Mitzvah is an international adult Jewish learning initiative which encourages participants to combine group study with a set curriculum and with individual exploration of study, spirituality and social action. One of the topics in the curriculum is “Interpersonal Relationships”, addressing responsibilities between an individual and the community.
Truthfully, I really hate the word “rebuke” but, I will say that this session on tochecha was a most meaningful one for me as a Jewish leader. Leadership is about shared vision, teamwork, honesty, and good communication. Of course, that is easier said than done. We are a diverse people and visions can differ and teamwork, honesty and communication don’t always come easily. People don’t always make the right decisions or even agree as to what the right decision should be. What do we do when we see someone in a leadership position making a mistake? According to our sages, we have an obligation to say something. However, for this to really be the mitzvah of tochecha, we are told that we must say it in a way that people can hear, to evaluate whether we are the right person to say it, and to evaluate our motives for why we need to say something. It’s important to watch your tone, your words, and understand your motives.
Trim yourselves, and then trim others (meaning, “correct yourself before correcting others,” a quote from the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 60 a-b). It is important when you’re in a leadership position to know yourself. Are your motives purely to help the individual be more effective, or is there something else going on?” continues Pava. “Accepting rebuke as a leader is even more important and much harder! In Parashat Yitro, we see that Moses listens to his father-in-law, Yitro, who tells him how he can be a more effective leader. It is much easier to give advice, but if we feel like we’re being criticized, our gut reaction is to lash back. As leaders, we are obligated to deliver a message in the most proper way. However, as a leader we have to be more open to accepting criticism, even if it was not delivered in the best way.
This topic is not only important for leaders, but for all individuals. Rabbi Ilana Garber of Beth El Temple in Hartford is hosting three Chai Mitzvah classes this year, mirroring the diversity of her congregation. She finds that this topic, one of nine in the Chai Mitzvah curriculum, really resonates with the participants.
“Tochecha – such an unfamiliar subject of study and yet such a familiar concept in our daily lives!” Garber says. “At first the participants were confused – how was it a mitzvah to critique or even criticize someone else? But then they realized that tochecha is an act of love and concern, one that they perform regularly. Our learning helped infuse their daily interactions with a Jewish intention. It was wonderful to witness their transformation during the 90 minutes of our class session. In subsequent meetings, students have raised this concept and have appreciated how tochecha fits into the very fabrics of their relationships.”
Garber continues, “One member has reported that when thinking about how she might approach her teenage daughter with tochecha, instead of coming straight at her with criticism, she has learned to approach her with questions, guided by kindness and good intention. That’s a win-win for everyone!”
Chai Mitzvah is a unique program whose main mission is to encourage participants to re-engage with their own congregations and communities through group and independent study and personal commitments in spirituality and social action. Other curriculum topics include Mindfulness, Philanthropy, and Gratitude. Although the organization is only six years old, it has already impacted 1500 people in more than 100 congregations all over the United States, Canada and Israel. In addition, Chai Mitzvah groups have formed outside congregations such as Ann Pava’s Lion of Judah group, an artist’s group through the Charter Oak Cultural Center of Greater Hartford, and small chavurot gatherings around the country.
Chai Mitzvah is a creative, turn-key, and inexpensive program that is easily implemented in Jewish communities around the world. It encourages Jews of all backgrounds to recharge their Jewish batteries, exploring what their own meaningful Jewish lives can be.