Imagine a complete stranger approaches you in the street, and after offering a brief greeting, he begins to criticize your every move.

How would you react? Would you respond emphatically or just ignore him? 

Well, that stranger is Jacob, in this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 29). Upon arriving to the city of Haran, he encounters a group of shepherds and immediately rebukes them for taking a break and not working: “You should be out in the fields, still grazing with your sheep, instead of slacking off, and taking a break!”

Oddly enough, the shepherds react cordially, explaining to Jacob, that they are simply waiting for other shepherds to arrive. Not only are the shepherds not bothered by Jacob’s words, but they actually take the time to offer an excuse and justify their behavior. Wow! What did he say in order to elicit such a dialogue? What was his secret of communication?

The answer lies in one word: When Jacob initially approaches the local shepherds, he addresses them as… brothers. Listen to his words: “And Jacob said to them: “My brothers! Where are you from?” (Genesis 29:4). Had he greeted them and said, “Hey, you lazy workers, get back to work,” their response would have undoubtedly been different. But Jacob called them ‘brothers!’ with a sincere heart, and that made all the difference.

How true. If we can’t love others, we can’t rebuke them. If we can’t see the other as a brother or a sister, we can’t criticize him or her. Our words of critique will simply not penetrate.

As a Rabbi, I witness this phenomenon on a regular basis. “Rabbi! My wife is really making horrible mistakes,” someone shared with me this week. “I keep on telling her to fix them, but she only gets angrier with me.” Or conversely, a woman might complain: “My husband is really lazy, and as much as I try to reproach him nicely, he just blows up, leaves the room, and disappears for 2 hours.” Parents also come begging: “I am observing my children making terrible choices, but they reject all my advice. Can you please talk to them for us?”

Every case is surely unique, and this advice may not apply to all. But, at times, all that is lacking is this brotherly approach of love. And if we can first love them unconditionally, treasure them, and compliment them, then, they will surely listen.