In the aftermath of the Union army’s terrible defeat at the battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862, Abraham Lincoln felt compelled to relieve General Ambrose Burnside of command of the Army of the Potomac. In his place he somewhat reluctantly appointed General Joe Hooker to assume command. The following excerpts from a letter which President Lincoln sent to Hooker on the eve of his appointment are a masterful example of a superior cautioning his subordinate about some of his flaws, while simultaneously subsuming the critical message within a broader context of support and encouragement. Lincoln understood that if he were only to criticize Hooker, his words would fall on deaf ears.
“General: I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skilled soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable, quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside’s command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such a way to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I ask of you now is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship….And now beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories.”
Delivering constructive criticism and rebuke—tochacha—constitutes a very important mitzvah. However, precisely because effective rebuke requires a delicate balance between encouragement and criticism, it is a mitzvah that can only truly be practiced by a select few. Rav Shlomo Wolbe, in his monograph on education, Zeriah U’Binyan B’chinuch quotes (p.26) Rav Chaim Volozhiner who stated “nowadays harsh words are not heard.” As such, Rav Chaim maintained that: “A person whose disposition prevents him from speaking gently and who gets angry quickly at people who sin, especially when they don’t heed his words, is exempt from the mitzvah of rebuke.”
The importance of carefully crafting criticism in a manner that contains the rebuke within a framework of positive encouragement can be seen at the end of this week’s parsha when Yitzchak enjoins Esav to refrain from marrying a Canaanite. The Torah describes (28:1) how Yitzchak first blessed Esav and only then did he discuss the issue of marriage with him. Rav Chaim Zuckerman, in his anthology Otzar Chaim, quotes a beautiful insight in the name of the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim explains that the point of Yitzchak’s discussion with Esav at the conclusion of the parsha was quite obvious. He wanted to rebuke him regarding his current marital practices and to direct him to repent and pursue a better and holier approach. However, Yitzchak realized that if he got straight to the point, Esav would ignore him. Therefore, Yitzchak first blessed Esav, thus encouraging him and enabling the rebuke to be framed in an overall context of positive growth. Only in this carefully crafted way would Yitzchak stand a chance of influencing Esav’s behavior.