Take my advice

By Rabbi Noah Arnow

A quiz. If someone offers you a suggestion for improvement in some area of your work or personal life, do you: A) ignore the advice; B) take the advice seriously; C) take the opportunity to give this person some “advice” you’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to give; or D) does it depends who gives the advice?

The answer, of course, is D. It matters tremendously who gives us advice. And it matters who gives us praise, too. The sycophantic underling who is always complimenting his boss may not find his praises taken seriously. But we all remember teachers we’ve had from whom the comment, “This is adequate work,” given with a grudging smile, can make us feel like we just got the best compliment ever. Or when we receive honest praise from a person who we know really dislikes us, we take it all the more seriously because we know it comes from the heart.

On the other side of things, the person in your office who is always criticizing you, who complains about everything and everyone all the time, eventually becomes like the boy who cried wolf or, in this context, the colleague who said, “Next time you should…” 

When people criticize us constantly, when they harp on us, when we see them more as enemies than friends, we discount their constructive or critical feedback because we don’t trust the source. But when a close friend or a respected colleague who usually encourages and compliments us gives us a gentle word of suggestion for improvement, we pay extra attention.

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In this week’s Torah portion, the Midianite king Balak hires Bilaam, a sorcerer and prophet, to curse the Israelites. Puzzlingly, Bilaam winds up blessing the Israelites, not cursing them. And in different places in the Torah, Moses, the Israelites’ leader, lawgiver, judge and protector, rebukes the Israelites. So what do we make of an enemy blessing us and a friend rebuking us?

An ancient midrash understands this. Rabbi Abba, the son of Rabbi Chanina, said: It would have been more fitting for the rebukes to have been uttered by Bilaam and the blessings by Moses. But had Bilaam uttered the rebukes, then Israel would have said, “It is an enemy who rebukes us,” and had Moses uttered the blessings, then the other nations of the world would say, “It is their friend who blesses them.” Therefore, God commanded, “Let their friend Moses reprove them and their foe Bilaam bless them, so that the genuineness of the blessings and rebukes of Israel may be clear beyond question (Dt. Rabbah 1:4).”

Praise from a friend may feel good, and criticism from an enemy may be expected. But sometimes, we will have important opportunities to compliment someone of whom we are usually critical, or to offer constructive feedback to someone who we know will take it seriously from us. 

Whether we are the one giving or receiving the praise or criticism, these can be holy opportunities, and we should not miss them.

Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.