Parshat Devarim: The Art of Rebuke

Mother Scolding DaughterCriticism and rebuke have always been part of the Jewish way of life. This was true in the days of the prophets and it continues to be a part of our modern discourse. But it may be surprising to discover that according to the Torah, rebuke is actually seen as a way of preventing or overcoming hatred and antipathy between people: “Do not hate your brother in your heart; you must [instead] rebuke your fellow” (Vayikra 19:17). The commentators explain that the connection between the prohibition to hate and the mitzvah to rebuke is a counter-intuitive one: Rebuke makes peace (Rashbam). Criticism is an expression of love, as it says in Mishlei, “For G-d will rebuke he that He loves” (3:12). The verse which follows the injunction to rebuke one’s fellow, “love your neighbor as yourself,” also alludes to this point, and the verse which precedes it, “do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow,” teaches that one who withholds criticism is compared to a person who sees his neighbors blood being shed and does not protest.

But the bitter truth is that today criticism has been corrupted and it tends to have the opposite effect. It deepens rifts between people and groups, creating tension and anger between the criticizer and the criticized. It is very easy to criticize incorrectly. In order for criticism to be constructive, it must be done in such a way as to lift the subject of the rebuke and not to put him down, to enable him to grow and learn from it, and not in order to offend or embarrass him. Good intentions alone are not enough to ensure the success of the criticism, and often there are not even good intentions. The healing of our society will not come when we stop criticizing one another, but when we do so for its original purpose – to promote love and peace.

The book of Devarim begins with Moshe’s rebuke of the nation. Moshe’s words are exceedingly harsh. He does not suffice merely with recounting their wrongdoings and explaining the punishments they received for them (Devarim 1:19-45, and the rebuke continues through parshas Va’etchanan and Ekev), he even holds them responsible for the punishment that awaits him (Devarim 1:37).

One of the great Chassidic masters, Rebbe Yaakov Yitzchak of Pshische, known as the Holy Jew, was said to read a few verses from Moshe’s rebuke of the people every day, for he believed that those words had a special ability to penetrate the heart (Pri Tzedek, Parshat Devarim). So too we will examine Moshe’s words of rebuke – with a focus on their format more than their content – in an effort to learn from them the art of criticism.

Timing is Everything

With any form of rebuke, the timing is at least as important as the content of the remarks. If a person is despondent, criticizing them is liable to only push them down further, to the edge of the abyss. Moshe chose his timing very precisely. The Torah goes out of its way to point out that Moshe’s remarks came “after he struck down Sihon, King of the Amorites…and Og, King of Bashan (Devarim 1:4), that is, immediately following mighty victories when the nation was in high spirits.

Criticism must also come at a time when the receiver is prepared to change. It is hard for a person to change his behavior patterns when he is absorbed in his daily routine. Here also Moshe’s timing is perfect. Am Yisrael is perched on the edge of the Land of Israel, about to enter a new stage and an entirely new way of life.

It is also important to take into account the relationship between the giver and the receiver of the rebuke. By delivering the criticism now, shortly before his death, Moshe ensures that he will have the attentive ear of the people.

Less is More

Another important question for criticism of all types is “how much?” There are some areas where we say “the more the better,” but with criticism the opposite is true. In the books of Shmot, Vayikra and Bamidbar Moshe barely rebukes the people at all. When rebuke comes as a unique, one-time event, people are open to hear it, but when it is a familiar refrain, its targets quickly learn to shut their ears. A friend of mine, an educator by profession, once compared criticism to a pistol with two bullets in it. Over the course of a school year he only gets two shots, so he must think carefully before using them.

End on a High Note

If the goal of criticism is to help a person grow then it must contain a positive element as well. The book of Devarim begins with Moshe’s rebuke of the nation, and it ends with his blessings to them, as in the name of the Torah’s final parsha, “V’zot Habracha.” The Haftorah of Parshat Devarim is also one of fierce criticism (Isaiah chapter 1), but for the following by seven weeks we read Haftorahs that speak of consolation and looking forward to salvation.

Who to Rebuke

One thing which is strange about Moshe’s rebuke of the nation is that Moshe is not rebuking those who have sinned, he is rebuking their children. The parents who sinned were of the generation that left Egypt, and they have since died off in the desert. This becomes most pointedly absurd when Moshe says, “And your young ones who you said would be captured, and your children who do not know today good and evil, they will come to [the Land] and I will give it to them and they shall inherit it” (Devarim 1:39). The people standing before Moshe are not the ones who said that their children would be captured, they are the “young ones” and the “children.” Moshe is not speaking to the ones who transgressed but to their offspring. What is his intention?

Criticism is a tool for fixing. Not only does the second generation bear a responsibility for fixing the sins of their fathers – in actuality, they are the only ones who are capable of doing that fixing. The Talmud states that “just as it is a mitzvah for a person to speak up when he will be heard, so too is it a mitzvah to refrain from saying something which will not be heard” (Yevamot 65b). Criticizing a person who does not have the capacity to accept what you have to say is liable to only cause damage, as the Gemara there cites, “Do not rebuke the fool, lest he hate you; rebuke the wise man, and he will love you” (Mishlei 9:8). Criticism of the perpetrators would have fallen on deaf ears, but the offspring, with a generation’s distance and perspective, are the ones who are capable of hearing and correcting the past mistakes.

Many times we bear witness to people who wreck their lives with their own two hands. The natural reaction of those who seek the best for them is to try to open their eyes to the root of the problem and their own self-destructive role in creating it. But when it is clear that our words will not be heard and might even cause detachment, it is best to remain quiet and to give them the only thing they are able to receive – warmth without judgment.

Rebuking with Love

All we need is love.Before rebuking someone, a person should ask herself if she wants to do it. Paradoxically, if the answer is yes, if she feels she would like to rebuke, she would be better off holding back and keeping her thoughts to herself. If the answer is no, she should gather her strength and share her criticism.

On the most basic level there is a simple question: Am I criticizing someone for my own sake, or for her sake? “My own sake” usually means in order to vent anger or frustration, or to strengthen my own self image by putting myself above the other. “Her sake” means to help my friend be in a better place. If I have a desire to criticize, it is safe to assume that in doing so I am somehow serving my own needs. When I don’t feel like speaking up, it is usually because I am afraid of offending my friend, or I am concerned that if I criticize her, she will no longer like me. Since, despite that, it occurred to me to rebuke her for something, it seems that on some level I am aware that she needs me. In such a case, the criticism will generally come from a place of humility, sensitivity and care, and there is hope that words that come from the heart will enter the heart.

The reality today in our public discourse is the exact opposite. Unlike Moshe Rabbeinu, most people prefer the easy path. They criticize those who are not of their own camp, possibly gaining short-term personal profit or popularity among certain groups. But in the end of the day, not only does the victim of such selfish criticism suffer, but by deepening the rift between the different parties and wielding criticism as weapon to destroy and hurt as opposed to using as a tool to build and heal, everyone loses, and society on a whole becomes increasingly fractured, polarized and isolated.

Rav Yaakov Nagen
Yakov Nagen (Genack) is a Rom at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and a member of “Beit Hillel”.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir


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