Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Giving it to him" is usually a bad idea

A friend related that he had finally told off a very difficult person at work. “I really gave it to him,” he said. The conversation reminded me of a shul finance official who once told me he wanted to contact people who don’t pay their dues, and “really give it to them.”

(I suspect this is the sort of giving many people are actually contemplating when they say, “It’s better to give than to receive!”)

I’ve never found this tactic useful. I'll admit that I've done it a few times, but it's never accomplished anything positive, and it has generally yielded negative results.

Sure, unloading on someone allows me to express my frustration, but it's just that, an emotional reaction, not a reasoned strategy. Worse, it makes people defensive, it tells them they have gotten to me, it sounds like a child’s tantrum… it’s a negotiating disaster, in other words.

Juts look at the Torah’s classic example of "giving it to someone," Yaakov’s lecture to Lavan (Bereishit 31:36-42) after Lavan had chased him down and accused him of theft. I love this tirade. Translated loosely:

And Yaakov was angered, and he fought with Lavan, saying to him, “What is my rebellion, what is my transgression, that you lit out after me? You have felt through all of my possessions, what of your household items have you found? Place it here, before my brothers and yours, and let them identify the truth between us!

This is twenty years I’ve been with you, your ewes and goats never lost their young and I never ate any of your sheep. I never brought you a torn up animal; I made it up myself, you demanded it of my hand, whether it was stolen by day or by night.

I was consumed by dry heat in the day and frost by night, and sleep flew from my eyes. This is twenty years for me in your house, I worked for you for fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your sheep, and you even altered my salary ten times! If the Gd of my father, the Gd of Avraham and the One who awed Yitzchak, had not been with me, you would now have sent me away empty-handed! Gd has seen my poverty and the strain of my hands, and judged it last night.

That’s a great tirade, Yaakov really let loose on him. I love leining it; the words, combined with the trop notes, are so energized, so dramatic.

But what does Lavan do? Next sentence:

And Lavan asserted and said to Yaakov: The daughters are my daughters, the sons are my sons, the sheep are my sheep, and everything you see is mine…

“Giving it to him” doesn’t work, folks; it didn’t work for Yaakov, and it doesn’t work today.

Instead, Tanach’s recommendation (Mishlei 15:1) that ומענה רך ישיב חמה, “A soft assertion will settle anger,” works far better for me.


  1. Yup, the problem with giving it to someone is that they are liable to give it right back.

  2. I've always bristled at Lavan's response, too, but according to Rashi, at least, it looks like he was just introducing his capitulation. The end of the pasuk says, "Now, what would I do to these daughters of mine today, or to their children, whom they have borne?," and Rashi interprets "How could I entertain the thought of harming them?" (Translations from

  3. I always urge people to give it to them with a smile. A batch of warm ex-lax brownies....

    No, the truth is that you are right. More often than not yelling at someone often makes the situation worse.

    It is not a real effective way of convincing someone to change their behavior. If you have to yell chances are you don't have any authority over them.

    But there are moments when it feels good to do so.

  4. ProfK-

    That is one way to read the sentence and Rashi, certainly, but I'm not sure his comment is meant to explain the first half of the sentence.

    I actually find I feel bad when I do it. Not only out of guilt, but also out of realizing how pathetic a reaction it is.

  5. Jack I love it.

    I, myself, prefer Rachel's way of dealing with Lavan.

    But maybe that's just because I'm a woman. ;)

  6. Right on, Rabbi. I see Yacov as having asserted there, probably hoping against hope that L. would listen to reason. He learned pretty quickly that people in power don't have to listen to reason. He got out the only way he could, is the truth, in stealth. Lavan's language, is the truth.

  7. Tzipporah-
    Yeah, that must be it.

    "Asserted" sounds much better than "gave it to him"...