Long before I had the real pleasure and honor (and I mean those words sincerely) of being the parent of a teenager, I would regularly receive positive feedback from parents and teachers on working with teens. You are so good and patient with them! I would be told, to which I always responded that it was because I did not have to take them home with me. Truth be told, I was always proud of the way I worked with and interacted with teens in my career, but I did worry about what it would mean when it was my turn to be the parent. So, when my own son was young, and I was at Camp Harlam serving as faculty, I found myself talking to a colleague and classmate of mine whose kids are several years older. We had known each other for a while and had talked about our experiences with parenting over the years and I asked him what he felt it meant to parent and adolescent. He looked at me and said: Yair, whatever you do, don’t take the bait. Don’t take the bait? Don’t take the bait. What the heck is that supposed to mean, don’t take the bait? What it means is this: it is the job of teenagers to push the envelope, to try to stretch beyond the limitations of childhood and the boundaries that we as parents set for them, no matter how appropriate those boundaries might be. That is their job. That is how they grow into adulthood. How else will they grow as individuals—in character, in their spirit, in their sense of self—unless they challenge those boundaries and the authority, we as parents set? Which is fine, except that sometimes, when they push and challenge, it’s with sharper elbows and stronger words than we might be ready for, and so they push our buttons, or react with more heat or energy to something we say or do—anyone who’s found their children complaining that we were angry with them when we had spoken in what we thought was an even-tempered voice knows what I’m talking about. And it may be that, in the course of all that challenging and pushing, we as parents might find ourselves reacting, taking it personally. Now, that is understandable; they get us where it counts as they challenge us and look for room to grow. And it is our job to continue to provide those boundaries, but we still need to give them a space to grow, and we need to not take the bait. Not let the sharpness and their voice, the anger get to us.
This was many years ago, and since then I have been trying to follow my colleague’s advice, some days better than others. What I have found is that, while this was offered as advice for dealing with teenage children, it also works as a framework of how to understand conflict and feedback with others in general. That is to say, it is not just the parents of teens who have to worry about taking the bait. We have all had the experience where we have given feedback and not reflected in advance on how we were delivering it, and how it would be received. We were mad, or upset, and in the moment, and so we pushed, and then were surprised when the person did not exactly receive what we said as helpful. And we have been on the other side of that as well, as someone—perhaps a friend or family member, perhaps a stranger—offers us a correction, maybe incredibly gently, and we respond defensively, or with sadness, irritation, or anger. And we see the issue writ large in our society, as public figures are called out, well, publicly, for their misdeeds, and even the most heartfelt apology and act of correction seems to be insufficient, while others double down on their offense, leaning into it and asserting, I do not know, some kind of negative moral authority. As a society, we are trapped in a cycle of taking the bait.
How do we get out of this cycle? How do we step toward giving and receiving feedback in a way that it is helpful and functional, that it allows each of us, all of us, to learn and grow as people?
It is worth exploring this question on Yom Kippur, our day of atonement, because what is feedback if not the process of exploring our personal behavior so that we are able to make atonement at all? There is this idea that Yom Kippur—with its fasting and prayers for forgiveness—allow us to hit the reset button on our lives. Or perhaps, for some of us, it becomes important to also ask for forgiveness of individuals—perhaps directly by going to those we have talked to, and perhaps a blanket statement, on Facebook, for example, asking for forgiveness for our personal behavior, lest we did something and did not know we had offended someone with our actions or words. And all these behaviors on our part are good. Fasting—whether it is a food-based fast or, due to medical issues, a fast of another variety—along with the prayers of our mahzor, allow us to spend the day in self-reflection, contemplating our choices from the past year, our behaviors, and seeking to do better. Likewise, apologizing, even vaguely, provides the opportunity for individuals to share whether there were moments or interactions in the previous year that were painful or difficult and reflect on them, giving the apologizer the chance to receive necessary information in order that they correct their behavior.
But let us face it, sometimes, when we give feedback, our words are too sharp; we are responding not out of love or wanting to see our fellow community member do better; but from some other place. Ego, or negativity. We provide feedback in the heat of the moment, or even publicly, maximizing the possibility that the words will land hard and do real damage to the relationship. And when we receive criticism, we sometimes do not know how to reflect on it, no matter how lovingly and thoughtfully given, without taking it personally, without deciding it is unfair. We ‘take the bait,’ dwelling on our own offense or the misdeeds of the other, without really doing the work of self-reflection and repair. We get stuck.
Look, I get it. And I should be clear that this is not a new phenomenon. The rabbis of old, going back to the Talmud, spend pages and pages exploring ‘best practices’ as it were, both on how to give and receive feedback: when to do it, under which circumstances, and why it is important to do so. And unless you think that they were made of sterner stuff back then, and more able to give and receive feedback because of some cultural or historical situation, the Talmud relates the following conversation: “It is taught–Rabbi Tarfon said: I would be amazed if there is anyone in this generation who can accept criticism. If you say to someone, “Take that splinter out of your eye,” he says back, “Take that beam out of your eye.” Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: I would be amazed if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to criticize.” Truly there is nothing new under the sun.
So why engage in it at all? Why not leave it alone? The medieval philosopher Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato, sometimes called the Ramchal, basically said that while it is meritorious to correct someone’s behavior, it is nearly impossible to do it correctly, and Pirkei Avot, that collection of wisdom from the Mishnah, essentially says at one point, ‘you can’t tell nobody nothing.’ It is uncomfortable, it is unpleasant, no one wants to hear it. Why bother?
Because without it, both criticizer and criticized are left stunted in their growth as people. The criticized, of course, because they are left continuing to do whatever is inappropriate—perhaps and most likely inadvertently—without the opportunity to become better. How many of us have discovered to our profound mortification that the thing we were doing, unthinkingly, on autopilot, was truly offensive to someone? For many of us these days it comes in the inappropriate use of a person’s pronouns. We have been calling someone ‘he’ when we find out they are a ‘they,’ or ‘she’ when they are a ‘he.’ We do not mean anything by it, of course, and it seems like such a little thing, but when we compare it to, say, the non-Jewish acquaintance who feels the need to share every Jewish Joke they have ever heard, we start to understand why this is, for them, grating and unpleasant, and perhaps even traumatic.
But that is also true for the criticizer. By not speaking out, we may begin to harbor resentment about the person, assuming ill will on their part. Leviticus 19, which we read this afternoon, reminds us to lovingly rebuke our kin, lest we hate them in our heart. Isn’t that exactly what happens? We do not correct the behavior because why bother, we do not want to offend them, and so on, and we find ourselves dreading interacting with them, as if they are terrible in some way. That one issue that we might have discussed with them now dominates our entire perspective of the person.
So, we must give and receive correction. But we must do it right. We must deliver that correction in a way that people can hear it, and we must listen to what they say even if it is unpleasant. And I should be clear, it may not work. At the end of the day, we cannot control for outcomes, including how people will hear us and whether we will be received in the spirit in which we are presenting. Nevertheless, we must try.
The philosopher Maimonides has written extensively on this subject, drawing on the best of the Talmud and the rabbis who came before, and we will be using his reflections as our guide. First, unless it is an emergency, we do not correct in the heat of the moment. Unless it is an emergency—the person is going to harm others by their actions, intentional or otherwise—we create space between us and them. And we reflect on what happened. Why am I upset by what they said or did? Is it about them? Is it really about me? Perhaps I may have said or done something to suggest their actions were acceptable. To be clear, I am not talking about gaslighting oneself, but deeply reflecting on the encounter and whether it was an honest mistake or a missed signal. Maimonides also encourages us to reflect on whether we have ever done something similar—after all, we are not perfect in our actions or thoughts, and it may be that what upsets us is that we have made the same mistake and now find it embarrassing. When we go to the person, we approach them as a friend. We speak to them PRIVATELY, and if possible, face to face rather than through email or text or a phone call. We reflect on our experience, and how we have made mistakes—perhaps the same mistake—ourselves and offer that our offending associate may have not realized that what they did was inappropriate. That is, we start our words from a place of having already forgiven them. And we offer concrete suggestions on how to do things differently, and support if they need it on how to do better. And we continue, the Talmud tells us, until we see them getting red in the face—that is, embarrassed—at which point we stop. The point is to correct the behavior not to embarrass them.
What about those of us on the receiving end? It does not feel good to have our intentions questioned or to discover that we did something offensive, or that we were misunderstood. And we might feel that what was shared with us was unfair. What we need to do in that moment is slow things down. Unless they truly misunderstood our words or actions—which is a thing that happens! —we say ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’ and tell them we will reflect on what they shared. And then: reflect! How could we have done better? Was this an accident, a one-time mistake, or are we in the habit of making such mistakes? What do we need in place to make sure that we do not act or talk in such a way moving forward? By reflecting on this, we can actually do what we say we want to do, become better. Improve ourselves.
Look, I recognize that it is easy to describe these actions—how to give feedback, how to receive it—but it is hard to do. Especially when we are feeling hurt. But the blessing of doing this are vital and necessary. So much of what we see corroding in our society is our collective inability to receive and give feedback with love, to let our hurt and anger win the day. We cannot become the people we are meant to be until we step away from that reactive posture, and toward one another, but that can only happen when we start from a place of love and kindness in our words and actions and refuse to take the bait ourselves. We are taught in our tradition that criticism leads to peace. May we work to make those words true, as we say, a