Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you;
rebuke the wise and they will love you. — Proverbs 9:8
According to Jewish law, if one letter in a Torah scroll is incorrect, the entire scroll is invalid. The Torah scrolls consist of the five books of Moses handwritten on special parchment. Only these scrolls are used in synagogues for reading and worship. If there is a question regarding the validity of a particular Torah scroll because a letter may or may not be the correct one, the tradition is to take a small child who knows his letters and ask his opinion. Whatever the child says determines the status of the entire scroll!
One time, such a situation occurred in a synagogue here in Israel. As per tradition, the service was stopped, and a child was brought to the center of the synagogue to look at the Torah scroll. However, when the child was asked which letter he saw, he became overwhelmed and began to cry. One wise man took the child into his arms and calmed him. Then he showed him the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This was easy for the child, and he said excitedly, “Aleph!” Then the man found the second letter in the alphabet. With renewed confidence the little boy answered correctly “Bet!” The man continued to show the boy letters in the correct sequence of the alphabet, and only once the boy was confident did the man show him letters out of order, until finally they came to the letter in question and the boy had no problem identifying it.
This story teaches us that when we doubt our abilities and feel badly about ourselves, we will have trouble doing even the most basic things. However, when we feel good about ourselves and confident, we can accomplish goals and improve our abilities — even beyond what we might have imagined.
This idea is put into a wise teaching in Proverbs where we read: “Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you.” The Jewish sages explain the verse this way: If we relate to people as though they are useless sinners, they will not listen to any of our advice and will most likely resent us. But when we see the good in a person and treat him or her as smart, capable individuals, our advice will be welcomed. Like the boy in the story, when we instill a sense of confidence and self-worth within a person, we can help them to accomplish great things.
Next time you want to help someone improve – even if the person you want to help become better is you – start by focusing on what is already good. Honor and celebrate a person for who he or she already is and only then suggest small improvements. In this way we can provide guidance without diminishing dignity.