Amid a discussion seeking to resolve an apparent contradiction between a Mishna in Massechet Yevamot (16:3) and a Mishna in Massechet Ohalot (1:6) concerning the danger of a serious wound inflicted by a knife or sword, our daf (Yevamot 120b) explains that the case being described in Ohalot presumes that the knife or sword is not heated and therefore such a wound would be fatal, whereas the case being described in Yevamot involves a סכין מלובנת – a knife or sword that is white-hot. Consequently, the moment the person was injured, the heat of the knife or sword cauterized their wound enabling them to have a chance of survival notwithstanding the severity of their injury.
Reflecting on this difference, it led me to think about how we criticize others. Of course, we should not be on the look-out to criticize others. Nevertheless, the image of a cold knife or sword versus a hot one is very powerful. If criticism is ‘cold’, then it can cause fatal damage to someone; simply put, in so many ways it can kill them. So what is the definition of non-fatal criticism? It is when the criticism is ‘white-hot’ – not with anger, or resentment; but instead, with love. If that is the case, then any pain felt by the criticism received by the person is counterbalanced by the heat of the love of the individual criticizing which serves to cauterize the wound that is their criticism.
But as we know, there are different levels and ‘temperatures’ of love. I can love a place. I can love a friend. And I can love my wife. And what I think we can learn from here is that for criticism to cauterize and heal in the very moment that it is being delivered, the love must be ‘white-hot’, meaning that it must be so burning hot that it is visible from the outside. Only such a person is qualified to criticise, because if it is not that temperature, it can have devastating results.
Among our various problems today is that there is too much cold criticism and too little hot criticism; too much criticism delivered with the intent to harm or, in its best-case version, with little love towards the individual concerned, and too little from the place of burning love. Nevertheless, we all need a nudge once in a while – but for that nudge to be received in a constructive manner, it needs to come from someone whose love for us is so visible that it is like a knife or sword that is white-hot.
So if you find yourself about to criticize another, perhaps first measure the temperature of your intended criticism. If it is cold, don’t do it. If it is warm, then ask yourself whether it is truly necessary but don’t deliver it until it is fully heated. And it is white-hot with love, then your friend or family member is lucky to have someone in their life who loves them enough that they want to be a constructive voice for them by telling them where they have erred, while – at the same time – making sure that even if this criticism momentarily hurts, that it also heals as well.