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When My Words Cut Like a Knife

We all need to learn to give partial credit to our family members



When we were in yeshivah ketanah and our rebbi announced a bechinah, my classmates and I always peppered him with the same three questions:

  1. “Will the bechinah be open Gemara or closed Gemara?” We always thought the open Gemara bechinos would be easier, because if we didn’t know an answer, we could simply look it up. Of course, those bechinos were always much harder. If we didn’t understand the Gemara well before the bechinah, being able to open the Gemara wasn’t much help.
  2. “Will the bechinah be multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank?” We always preferred the multiple-choice bechinos, because if we didn’t know an answer, we could always guess. And maybe we would get lucky. Of course, those bechinos were always more challenging, since at least two answers sounded correct, making the choice very difficult.
  3. “When Rebbi grades our bechinos, will he be giving ‘partial credit’?” What did “partial credit” mean? If the correct answer was “Reish Lakish,” and we wrote “Rabi Yochanan,” it meant we understood the sugya, but simply got confused as to who said what. And we could then expect to receive some credit for our partial understanding of the Gemara.

Just as we wanted to receive partial credit from our rebbi when he graded our test papers, we all need to learn to give partial credit to our family members whenever they try to please us or satisfy our wishes. If a wife, for example, prepares a sandwich for her husband, and inadvertently leaves out the lettuce and tomato, she is still entitled to his appreciation for making his lunch. And if a husband comes home from shopping and forgot to buy the eggs, he is still entitled to his wife’s appreciation for buying all the other items on her list.

Husbands and wives, of course, are not the only ones who need to learn how to dispense partial credit. Children must express gratitude to parents even when they don’t get everything they want. And, yes, even parents should grant partial credit to their children.

As a psychotherapist, I know what some of you are thinking now. “Hold on, Wikler. You may be going a bit too far with this partial credit business. Are you suggesting that I can’t expect my spouse to improve? I can’t be mechanech my children when they miss the mark? That doesn’t sound very Torahdig to me!”

Of course you may correct your bnei bayis when they make mistakes or leave a task incomplete. However, that should never preclude your giving them the approval they deserve for the effort they invested. And when you do, you are imitating none other than HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

As Chazal taught: “Rav Assi said, ‘If someone planned to perform a mitzvah and was prevented from doing so [and as a result did not even begin the mitzvah], the Torah considers it as if he actually performed it” (Kiddushin 40a). Now, if that’s not a quintessential illustration of partial credit, I don’t know what is. You did not succeed in doing even part of the mitzvah. Yet if you genuinely planned on doing it and you were blocked in some way that was beyond your control, you still receive credit (at least partial) for your good intentions.

One November night a few years ago, I delivered a talk on the critical role of hakaras hatov in building and maintaining successful family relationships. And I exhorted the audience not to overlook granting partial credit to their spouses and children.

After my speech, people came over to ask questions or share comments. One lady stood off to the side and waited patiently to speak with me alone. When her turn came, her remark took me aback.

“I enjoyed your talk this evening,” she said. “But that part about partial credit really cut through me like a knife!”

She went on to explain. “You see, I work on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. So I only have two days each week to do all the shopping, cooking, and cleaning for Shabbos. Just making Shabbos for my family is enough of a challenge. Having guests is simply not a consideration.

“Two weeks ago, however, we were having Shabbos guests, not just for a seudah, but for the entire Shabbos. You can imagine what extra pressure that was for me. I got up Friday morning with still a lot to prepare. And with licht bentshen so early these days, I didn’t even have a full day left to finish all I had to do.

“I came downstairs to get started and couldn’t believe my eyes. The dining room table was completely set. Tablecloth, china, cutlery, stemware, and even the becher and challah board were all laid out. I realized that my husband must have understood how tense I was and decided to set the table for me even before he went to daven.

“When I looked closer, I noticed he had set the wrong napkins. You see, we use paper napkins in our home, cheaper ones for weekdays and fancier ones for Shabbos. And he had laid out the weekday napkins. Then I went into the kitchen and saw he had put up our hot-water urn without plugging it in.

“As my husband walked in from shul, what do you think I said to him? I’m so ashamed to admit it, but I said, ‘Don’t you know we don’t use these napkins on Shabbos? What were you thinking? And how could you forget to plug in the urn? Do you know how embarrassed I would have been if we had no hot water for our guests the whole Shabbos? There would be no hot tea after the seudah, and no hot coffee in the morning!’

“My husband waited until I finished dressing him down. Then he replied, ‘First of all, I left the urn unplugged on purpose. Our urn is small and heats the water very hot. I was afraid if I plugged it in this morning, half of it would be boiled away by Shabbos. So I planned on plugging it in later, after I came home. And, secondly, all you noticed about the dining room table was the napkins?’

“I said nothing, and neither did he. He went to work, and I got busy in the kitchen. Our guests came and we had a beautiful Shabbos. In fact, I forgot about the entire episode until I came here tonight and heard you speak about partial credit. Now maybe you can understand why your words cut through me like a knife.

“Dr. Wikler, I am so ashamed of myself for not giving my husband any credit for everything he did to help me two weeks ago. So the first thing I plan to do when I get home tonight is apologize to him for having been so critical and unappreciative.”

Many years have passed since I gave that late November talk. And I still have not heard from that woman’s husband. I was kind of hoping to hear a few words of gratitude from him for my having called his wife’s attention to the notion of partial credit.

But maybe he will read this and finally give me a call. If he does, it may just provide me with the basis for a fabulous follow-up article.

Stay tuned.


Dr. Meir Wikler, a frequent contributor to this space, is an author, psychotherapist, and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Brooklyn and Lakewood. His latest book, Behind Closed Doors: Over 45 Years of Helping People Overcome Their Challenges, was recently published by Menucha Publishers.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 819)

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