We read in Parashat Vayechi of Yaakov’s final words to his sons before his death, which included harsh condemnation of Shimon and Levi for their violence (49:5-7), presumably referring to their assault on Shekhem to avenge the rape and abduction of their sister, Dina. Yaakov begins his censure of Shimon and Levi by declaring, “Shimon and Levi are brothers.” The Keli Yakar explains that Yaakov made this proclamation as an expression of praise before proceeding to condemn his sons’ act of violence, commending Shimon and Levi for their brotherly commitment to their sister. While he sharply criticized their violent reaction, he also made a point of lauding their passionate devotion to Dina which prompted them to resort to extreme measures for the purpose of defending her honor and rescuing her from the clutches of her assailant.
Rav Chaim Elazary, in his Netivei Chayim, draws from the Keli Yakar’s comments the message of expressing praise and compliments before offering criticism. When criticism is warranted, it is likely to be more effective if it is preceded by complimentary words. Yaakov began by lauding Shimon and Levi for their fraternal devotion as an introduction to his harsh condemnation of their violence, so that his criticism would be more readily accepted.
We might add that Yaakov here does not merely give praise to Shimon and Levi, but acknowledges that the wrongful act they committed stemmed, in part, from an inherently admirable quality. He recognizes that Shimon and Levi did not engage in random, wanton violence, but rather acted upon noble and commendable emotions of familial devotion. The act itself was illegitimate, but the mindset and feelings that produced the act were worthy of admiration and emulation. When offering criticism, it is important not only to include complimentary words, but also to acknowledge the positive aspects of the wrongful behavior being criticized. Very often, improper conduct results from a misguided expression of otherwise noble feelings and objectives. As in the case of Shimon and Levi, it is important to recognize those admirable characteristics even when we find it necessary to criticize the actions which they bred.