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Torah Studies
33--Parshat B'ha'alot'kha
June 17, 2005
© Rabbi Jack Moline

(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...heiv et hatochakhot, loving criticism...

(Numbers 12:11) adoni al na tasheit aleinu chatat asher no'alnu va'asher chatanu; (Aaron asks Moses)...please, my lord, do not hold us accountable for the sin we sinned in our foolishness.

Seeing "love" and "criticism" in the same suggestion seems almost like a contradiction in terms. Especially those of us who consider ourselves liberal or enlightened look askance at the notion that there is much to be gained by negativity. In fact, most of the prescriptions for contemporary religion in general (and Judaism in particular) include making the religious experience a welcoming and affirming experience, filled with happy memory-making moments, upbeat songs and inspiring stories. Whether it is worship, study or ritual, religion is supposed to make you feel good about yourself and God's love. What today's religion is supposed to eschew is guilt.

But if Judaism were all about affirming the individual as he or she is, there would be no need for Judaism. In fact, from Abraham to Elie Wiesel, Judaism has always been at its best when comforts the afflicted AND afflicts the comfortable.

Guilt is a very powerful and useful aspect of human life. Of course, there is good guilt and bad guilt. Bad guilt is disabling sense of helplessness and shame a person feels when taking responsibility for something that is not really his or her fault – especially if there is nothing to be done about it. Bad guilt makes us cry over spilt milk, even when we have not done the spilling.

Good guilt is otherwise known as conscience. Good guilt motivates us to recognize when our actions could have avoided harm or injury, or a diminution of God's presence in the world, and then do something to correct the situation. Everyone makes mistakes, and some people even set out to make mistakes. A sense of culpability can turn a deficit into an asset.

Guilt is not pleasant, and when someone provokes a sense of guilt in us, we have a tendency to resent that person. I don't like to be found out when I am wrong, and I like it even less if I have been reproved for it. I know that my own reactions are often defensive – perhaps I will try to change the subject, or point out a similar fault of my accuser, or strenuously deny what I know to be the truth. My injured feelings become a self-righteous justification of my original sin.

When Aaron and Miriam gossiped about Moses and his wife, they got caught. It was a wrong thing to do, and God called them on it. Aaron did a little dissembling in front of Moses, saying in the convoluted Hebrew of the Bible, "Hey, come on...we were just kidding around." Throughout the Torah, Aaron seems to try to avoid responsibility for his actions. His constantly professed innocence takes advantage of God's need for a pure and innocent High Priest.

But Miriam is silent and is punished with physical affliction. Though Moses prays for her recovery, God decrees a sort of minimum sentence for her sinfulness. Perhaps if she, too, had spoken up, God would have given her a break and removed the disease. However, Miriam instead accepted the criticism and reproof. Her behavior had blemished her righteousness just as the skin condition blemished her body. She did her time in order to learn her lesson. Certainly, she didn't seek out sin in order to be punished, but her quiet acceptance of her punishment was a purifying act to counterbalance the pollution she initiated.

I think that's what "loving criticism" is all about. When the criticism is deserved, it is a road to self-improvement, an understanding of how the existing me can be a better me. Sometimes I know my own faults and sometimes it takes others to point them out. And certainly, no one wants to be criticized all the time – there is nothing wrong with a little tender loving care, too.

Judaism presents itself as a vehicle to living a better life. With our constant reminders to obey God, to seek peace, to pursue justice, to observe the commandments and to be holy, it can seem quite a burden. Add to the teachings of the tradition daily worship, with its reinforcing of expectations and urgings to penitence and it appears the work is never done. Isn't it wearying?

Certainly it is if we are like Aaron, resenting the fact that we've been caught in the act and looking for a way out. Certainly it is if we lump all guilt together and equate conscience with pathology.

But if we can follow the example of Miriam by accepting the criticism and reproof of our actions because we know they emerge from a genuine concern that we be better people, then we not only benefit, but we come to acquire lessons of Torah. Judaism need not be happy-clappy to be attractive; the goal is not to feel better, but to be better.

How does one become oheiv et hatochakhot? Turn to a copy of the liturgy for Yom Kippur and spend some time with the confessionals. Acknowledge which kinds of shortcomings are in your life and think about the consequences until your heart begins to break and the tears flow from your eyes. Then, identify a behavior you will adopt to try to correct your sin and do it. Are you braver? Turn to a trusted friend and ask him or her to be honest about your shortcomings....

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