Catch Them Doing Something Good

I find this week’s Torah portion, Metzorah, to be disgusting. It talks about various skin diseases, plagues, and bodily discharges that cause one to become impure; followed by what must be done to become ritually cleansed or healed. I never understood why we read this chapter. It feels so deeply intrusive and sounds gross. Is it truly necessary to learn (in the bible no less!) how to treat leprosy or genital emissions? Shouldn’t all of this be handled in the privacy of a doctor’s office?

As you might expect, the lessons of this chapter go far deeper than what we read on the surface of the page. The rabbis teach, in ways that only rabbis can, that these ailments – sickness, disease, and even death – are the downfall of a society engaged in improper speech or doing evil deeds.

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If asked, Jews know that gossiping is wrong. We learn from Hebrew school, from mothers and grandmothers, and even from Yom Kippur liturgy that lashon hara – the evil tongue – is the prohibition against engaging in negative talk about others. We learn that a lie or something hurtful that is said about another cannot be taken back (e.g. see my post “Feathers in the Wind“). Moreover, as we age, we come to understand that words have the power to take on a life of their own…so much so that they can destroy the reputation of individuals, ruin communities, and wipe out the existence of societies.

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In my ongoing attempt to turn the negative into a positive, I was grateful to reread Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s perspective on the matter. To avoid talking lashon hara about someone, he maintains that one must actively pursue opportunities to talk lashon hatov about them instead; saying something good or praiseworthy.

Sacks’ words reminded me of a lecture I attended many years ago. The featured child psychiatrist talked about “catching your children doing good.” He explained that it’s often too easy for parents to say don’t do this or don’t do that to their kids. Instead, he encouraged parents to catch a child in the act of doing something right (e.g. helping a sibling or feeding the dog) and to offer immediate positive praise. He argued that this was a great way to build a child’s self-esteem and to develop a long-term parent-child relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

Taking things a step further, Sacks believes that praising others offers a deeper spiritual message. He says, “We think religion is about faith in God…[However] faith in God should lead us to have faith in people.” Something interesting to think about.

In our day-to-day lives, we are presented with many opportunities to criticize or to praise what others do. If we presumably care about certain groups of people, consider this for a moment: We can knock them down or build them up. We can catch them “doing bad” or “doing good.” We can demotivate or empower. What’s the better approach? Interestingly, the choices we make in what we say and how we say it actually say more about US than it does about them.

Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or a boss, Sacks challenges us to learn that, “Praise and how we administer it is a fundamental element in leadership of any kind. Recognising the good in people and saying so, we help bring people’s potential to fruition.”

“The right kind of praise changes lives. That is the power of lashon hatov.”

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