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Home » Balak, Questions of Ethics

Balak: The Perennial Critic

Submitted by on July 1, 2012 – 4:16 amNo Comment | 2,133 views

How to Treat a Critic

There are those who thrive on highlighting other people’s faults. It gives them such pleasure, they can hardly contain themselves. If they can’t find fault they drive themselves incessantly until they find it and failing that, they grow despondent. Mostly these people don’t intend harm, they gossip for pleasure with nary a thought to consequence, but such isn’t always the case. From time to time we encounter the rare breed, who actually takes pleasure from bringing someone down.

Balaam was one such person. He excelled at digging up dirt on others and timing his revelations perfectly. He knew how to craft his zingers for maximum yield and reveled when his poison laced words cut to the quick and brought someone down.[1]

It is sad, but true that such people are often popular. These people almost always have throngs of followers, who hang on their every word. These crowds take no pleasure in another’s downfall, but they express support when it occurs, hoping to curry favor with the critic.

Hard Line

Speaking of the Moabite the Torah says, “Do not seek their peace and welfare all your days forever.”[2] Why is that? Because they hired Balaam to curse the Jews and it was only out of G-d’s love for us that He transformed the curse into a blessing.

“Don’t seek their peace,” means don’t greet them with Shalom, hello in Hebrew. “Don’t seek their welfare,” means don’t even ask, how are you? You see a perennial critic, the perennial critic - innerstreammake tracks; leave skid marks on your way out. Have nothing to do with them. Don’t be among their admirers and followers. Don’t count yourself in their circle. If you hear them, ignore them. Don’t listen.[3]

Do you know why? It’s because they are critical of the people you love. If someone offered to share a juicy morsel of gossip about your mother, your response would be or at least should be, I won’t listen. If they want to speak ill of your spouse, you don’t care to hear. Why? Is your head in the sand? No. It’s because you love your spouse and lovers don’t tear down their beloved.[4]

If your spouse has a flaw you will confront it and deal with it. If you don’t confront it, you are likely able to live with it so why discuss it? You love your mother, why would you want to listen to a stranger’s criticism of her. What good will it do your mother?

Why then do perennial critics enjoy such popular followings? One reason is that the followers aren’t burning up with love for the critic’s victims. The proof is that when the critic turns his poison against his follower’s loved ones, the follower is immediately distressed.

Tolerance and love for the critic betrays our tolerance and love for his victims. The Torah isn’t taking a hard line against the critic, but a loving approach toward the public. This person is in the business of tearing others down. If we love those others, we will spurn their critics.

We now understand the deeper meaning of the verse, “And G-d your Lord had no desire to listen to Balaam and G-d your Lord transformed the curse to a blessing for G-d your Lord loves you.”[5] G-d saved us from Balaam out of love for us, but this cuts even deeper. Because He loved us, G-d felt no desire to listen to Balaam’s allegations against us. You might be right Balaam, but I don’t want to know. I love them. In fact, I’ll change the very punishments you seek into blessings.

Even in Praise

One might imagine that we ignore such people when they are critical, but embrace them when they offer praise. Yet the Torah cautions us against seeking the welfare of the Moabites at all times.

Our sages taught that Balaam found a way to curse the Jews, though G-d coerced him into blessing them. In praising the Jews, Balaam compared them to cedar trees near the water’s edge. He could have compared them to a reed at the water’s edge, but he didn’t because a reed blows this way and that and never breaks in the wind. A cedar, sturdy as it is, can be knocked down in a storm.[6]

By this Balaam meant to remind G-d that Jews might be worthy of blessing when they stand sturdy and tall, but there comes a time when they are meant to break. When they embark on a sinful path, they should be punished and lashed by storm.

Even when Balaam spoke highly of the Jew it was with intention to belie his underhanded curse. The Torah tells us to be wary of the perennial critic because even in compliment the critic can be snake-like, seeking to slide the blade in where you least expect it.[7]

It is important to listen to constructive criticism, but the critical assessor shouldn’t be one who loves to criticize. When loving people offer criticism you know they mean well. When perennial critics offer praise you know they don’t mean well.

Corporations sometimes hire outside firms to evaluate and if necessary terminate their employees. Employers hire proxies because they like their employees and hate to fire them. Yet, we must ask, who is better suited to offer a negative assessment or to terminate, someone, who enjoys it and doesn’t like your employee? Clearly the one who hates offering criticism is best suited to critique. Only then is it done fairly and with love.

It is our job to ensure that the teachers who mark our children’s report cards and the company officers, who fill out our critical assessments, hate to criticize and love to praise. Only then may we rest assured that the critique is fair and that it comes from a healthy place.[8]



[1] Babylonian Talmud, Brachos: 7a. Balaam knew when G-d angers and timed his curses for those moments.

[2] Deuteronomy 23:6.

[3] Of course we make every effort to rehabilitate the critic and in that context offer support and love, but we don’t join them in the hatred they spew. That is counterproductive, not to mention, morally repugnant.

[4] See Likutei Torah on this verse.

[5] Deuteronomy 23: 7. The thrice repeated words G-d your Lord indicates that His love for us is triggered by the fact that we make Him our Lord. When He is the focus of our lives, we become the love of His. See Likutei Torah on this verse.

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Taanis:20a.

[7] See commentary of Ktav Sofer on Deuteronomy 23: 6.

[8] Only the Kohen, a man of love, was authorized to assess Tzaraat and proclaim a fellow Jew impure.

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