Any system of personal belief worth its salt includes a demand of true self-awareness.

In religious language, the believer with integrity wants to be conscious of sin and, awakened to personal shortcoming or transgression, moved to contrition and repentance.

That vocabulary of faith is merely a fancier way of what your parents said when you did something wrong: “You know what you did, so say you are sorry.”

In Jewish tradition, the process of introspection is called “accounting of the soul” or perhaps “inventory of life.”  It is meant to lead to repentance, called teshuvah in Hebrew, from the word that means “to turn.”

In other words, having done an inventory of your conduct, you turn away from bad conduct. You know what you did, so say you are sorry. (And don’t do it again.)

The medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote a comprehensive guide to Jewish life a thousand years ago in which he discussed (among many other things) this process of teshuvah.

He identified the 24 hardest things facing a person intending to live a better life, and it was one of those things that prompted Benjy Forester, who is about to become a rabbi, to make this remarkable observation: Introspection is also interpersonal.

Some of the 24 items are predictable – intentional and habitual misbehavior, public disparagement of others, gaming the system by saying it’s easier to apologize than to ask permission, and more.

But the one that caught Forester’s attention was this: the person who refuses to listen to reproof.

As Maimonides says, a person who discovers that his faults are known to another should rightfully be ashamed, which opens the path to regret and repentance. But if the person has closed his ears and his heart to the criticism of others, he has also closed a way to being made whole again.

The Bible actually expects each of us to act as a lifeguard to others by offering compassionate criticism when we notice them taking a self-destructive path. While you may have just conjured an image of a harangue being offered from pulpit or street corner, I prefer to think of it as an intervention, large or small.

There ought to be no self-righteous posturing in saying to someone you love that you are concerned about their habits or behavior. Indeed, it is far more loving to offer concern than to ignore or enable conduct that endangers the well-being of a friend or family member.

Maybe all of this resonates with you and maybe it doesn’t, but the point of Forester’s four words of wisdom is not to endorse or critique the Bible or a thousand-year-old application of it. Instead, it is a remarkable insight about the importance of being in community.

The notion that introspection is exclusively a solitary act is as frightening as it is inaccurate. Who wants to be left alone with their conscience? Who wants to wonder if anybody actually cares about what kind of person they are? Who wants to serve as an unforgiving judge of their own soul, likely more harsh than necessary, just to feel goodness again?

The voice of criticism is the voice of love. No, of course not gratuitous or angry criticism which serves no purpose but to compound feelings of smallness. Rather, the voice of someone who cares enough to travel the path of repentance with you, ready to toss a lifeline before you drown in self-pity and remorse.

In the public realm, criticism has become cruel and usual. Umbrage, rather than compassion and sadness, has accompanied reproof. It has made people fearful for all the wrong reasons, worried about being marginalized or excluded without hope of redemption.

The same might be said about entertainment, where bickering and verbal combat have always been the source of comedy and drama alike. Eyes and ears on more screens for more time reinforce the conflict over the embrace.

An instruction like Benjy Forester’s, channeling Maimonides’ teaching, is a reminder of why loving admonition is the source of rescue from the despair of self-isolation.

Criticism alone serves only to further isolate. But when someone cares enough to accompany you to the place of personal growth and improvement, you are halfway to forgiveness.

You know what you did, so say you are sorry. I’ll be right here with you.

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