Take Heed

Just as it is a mitzva for a person to say that which will be heeded, is it a mitzva for a person not to say what will not be heeded,
— BT Yevamot 65b

The word "heed" is an unusual word; it's formal and heavy and wouldn't be used in casual conversation. Maybe it needs to be re-introduced into common parlance because it means more than simply listening. A careful sort of attention or notice must be given to meet its demands, the kind of attention that in these days of distraction is harder to come by. We heed warnings or ignore them at our own peril. We think of Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesman: "Attention must be paid,"and wonder what kind of focused attention that is.

But what happens when we give feedback that no one pays heed to? This becomes an ongoing dilemma in parenting and partnering, in business and in education. Any time we are trying to grow someone else, there will be resistance, push-back, defensiveness and even heartbreak. One of my favorite verses on mentoring comes from Proverbs: "Correct a wise person, and he will love you. Correct a fool, and he will hate you" (9:8). We understand the sentiment well. If we give feedback to people who are responsive - who heed what we have to say, know that it comes from a place of love and concern and know that it's not so easy to say - then our words can take root. But if we correct fools, we might not know who the fool really is - that person for ignoring us or ourselves for the wasted breath.

 But it's not so simple, as any supervisor or spouse can attest. Sometimes we speak out and the response we get is initially defensive, pained or angry but over time, the words we say seep in, and we notice change. Sometimes a "wise" person nods a head in agreement, hears feedback, expresses concern and then continues doing whatever it is he or she was doing wrong in the first place. In other words, determining who is wise and who is not is more complicated than it looks. 

 Maimonides in the seventh chapter of his "Laws of Character Development" expounds upon this conundrum and begins by writing that, "It is natural that a person's personality and actions are influenced by friends and colleagues and adheres to the expected norms of behavior. Knowing this, he should surround himself by those who are pious and wise to learn from their behaviors. He should also, subsequently, keep a distance from the wicked who follow darkness, and not learn from their behaviors." Then Maimonides quotes another verse from Proverbs about who we should associate with as a prooftext: "One who walks with the wise will become wise, while one who associates with fools will become foolish" (13:20). All good advice. If you want to be a better person, be around good people and then you will grow even without the admonition. You will improve simply by virtue of good role-models and high expectations of personal goodness.

 In the event that this is not enough at times, Maimonides continues in law #7 and suggests that, following from Leviticus 19:17, we admonish those who are doing wrong. He advises us to help those in need of correction by telling such an individual that he is causing himself harm, rather than merely irritating others. He suggests an atmosphere of respect and privacy, the use of gentle language and communicating again the abiding sense that the correction is for his own welfare. Maimonides concludes with a plea to responsibility, which I will translate loosely: "Whoever has the possibility of correcting a sinner and fails to do so is responsible for that sin since he had the opportunity to do something about it."

These are all helpful recommendations, but they don't resolve the feedback dilemma for us. How do we know who is wise and who is a fool when it comes to issuing criticism? How do we hear it? Think of a piece of feedback or criticism that you have hear about yourself for years - especially if it has come from more than one person - that you have not "heeded" - paid any special attention to. Write it down.

What is it about this issue that is making you so "hard of heeding"?

 Shabbat Shalom