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Parsha Devarim: I Hate to Be Critical, But…

This week’s Torah portion begins the last of the five books of Moses. Devarim, Deuteronomy is quite different than the preceding four in tone and content. Bereshit/Genesis described Mankind’s beginnings focusing mostly on the forefathers and foremothers of the Jewish people. From Shemot/Exodus onward we have the development of the Jewish nation in Egypt and the subsequent 40 years where they received laws and instructions from Moshe.

Devarim, which literally means “Words”, are just that – Moshe’s final words that he said before his passing. Pretty much the entire book is made up of a speech given over a span of 36 days. Words that the Jewish nation would carry with them forever. 

This lengthy talk starts off on a bit of a downer. Moshe recalls, but moreso chastises the people for many of their failings of the past 40 years. Complaints about food, concern about Moshe’s leadership abilities, a failed spy mission, the Golden Calf – it wasn’t exactly a hit-parade of highlights to say the least, but moreso of lowlights. He begins his speech by laying into them and pointing out the many faults and foibles of the people during his career. 

We all know that receiving rebuke is never fun. It’s a touchy experience and often hurt feelings result. Realizing this, Moshe felt that the best time to criticize was when his death was imminent. The rabbis in the Talmud point out that he did this for a couple of reasons. 

One was that it limits the embarrassment that giving criticism invariably creates. It is much easier to accept criticism if you will never see the critic again. It’s always painful to be within proximity of the person who can see through your disguise and knows your faults. Merely being in the presence of such an individual is a confirmation of personal failure. 

We saw this with Joseph and his brothers who were still quite fearful and uncomfortable around him long after he had rebuked, but repeatedly told them that he forgave them. Their embarrassment never ceased. Moshe’s delay in delivering his censure was not by accident; it was to limit the pain it would cause. 

Another major problem in giving criticism, rendering it ineffective and oftentimes hurtful, is when it is given without the receiver’s good-will in mind. When someone lays into us in a moment of anger, they are not acting in our interest, but merely steam-rolling over us to make themselves feel better. “Ah, I got that off my chest – I feel great.” Yes, you might feel better, but the recipient of your wrath is lying crumpled and broken on the floor. 

This was not the case when Moshe criticized the Israelites. Since he was at the end of his life, he no longer had anything personal to gain by it. Moshe’s timing illustrates an essential prerequisite to giving effective rebuke, and that is that it can never be given with any agenda other than the good and welfare of the recipient. That’s why Jewish tradition says that criticism should be given privately and with a soft voice, not with malice or anger and certainly not in public to shame another. Speaking softly when criticizing happens naturally when one is only focusing on the good and welfare of the other and not blowing off steam. 

To take it a step further, while criticism is often a blow to the ego and painful to endure, there are times when we seek it out. Indeed it is much easier to actively look for constructive criticism that to wait for the moment when someone feels the need to tell us. We naturally look for criticism when we seek to better ourselves at something we value and know is important to our lives. 

When I take a tennis lesson and the coach gives me tips on improving my serve by reaching back further with my racquet and following through, I don’t get offended. My ego isn’t bruised because he sees my tennis imperfections. I don’t indignantly say, “How dare you tell me how I should hit the ball!” We all realize that would be absurd. 

When our goal in life is to be the best person we can at whatever we do, not only do we welcome criticism, but we are even willing to pay for it like we do when we hire a coach or seek professional help. If someone has advice that will make us more money or be better at the things that we value in our lives, then we certainly wish to hear about it. 

And so we see that criticism, when looked at with the proper perspective, is not only not painful but a crucial and necessary tool for growth and success. If we are willing to overcome our ego, a whole world of fantastic help and knowledge awaits to make us better and our lives more fulfilling. All we need to do is to seek out, pay attention and listen to the words of the wise. To their Devarim.

Trust what I say 
And do what you’re told
And surely all your dirt 
Will turn into gold
-Van Morrison

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