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Constructive Criticism


Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )

by Nesanel Yoel Safran

There are times when we should speak up and tell others that they are doing something wrong. But there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. In this week's portion, Moses has to remind the Jewish people to behave better, and not repeat some of the mistakes they had made before. But instead of angrily bawling them out, Moses gently hints to the people what they had done wrong, and encourages them to do better in the future. We learn a big lesson from here, that if we criticize others, we should do it gently and sensitively, and get much better results.


In our story, we meet a special boy who understands the secret of how to speak to others.


It had been a great hiking trip. The boys had given it all they had, and used every drop of energy climbing up and down Bear Mountain. Now they were happy to have finally made it back to the bus, where they could rest up during the long ride back to camp.

The guys had just gotten cozy, and were melting into their seats, when all of the sudden ... DOOM CHA-KA DOOM, DOOM CHA-KA DOOM-DOOM ... blaring loud music started pumping from the back of the bus that shocked the boys wide awake.

"What on earth...?" They turned around and saw to their dismay that a group of rowdy, older kids had gathered back there, and between the music and their loud and raucous laughter, it looked like no one was going to sleep a wink on this bus ride.

"What should we do?" asked Larry, desperately.

Rick, the biggest and toughest kid in their crowd, was quick to answer. "I'll tell you what we're gonna do. I'm going right back there and telling those inconsiderate jerks to pipe down!"

With that, the husky boy got up and stormed to the back of the bus. But when he got there, things didn't work out exactly as the guys had hoped. Not only didn't the boys in the back pay any attention to Rick's angry complaint, but they just laughed at him, and turned up the music even louder!

Defeated, Rick returned to his seat. It seemed like all hopes of having a quiet, restful bus ride had gone up in smoke. The boys tried to make the best of it, and rest anyway, but it was going to be really hard.

A few minutes later Harold, the youngest kid in their group, stood up.

"Hey, what are you doing?" asked Larry, his seatmate. "We're not back yet, there's a long way to go."

The short, skinny kid answered matter-of-factly, "I'm going to ask those guys in the back if they could be more quiet."

"What?!" exclaimed his friend, "Big Rick already tried, and got nowhere, and now you're going to face them? That's suicide! They'll eat a little kid like you for breakfast!"

But Harold just smiled, and went about his plan. Meanwhile the rest of the guys had caught on to what was happening, and turned around to watch their brave but foolish friend walk into the lion's den. They all knew he didn't stand a chance.

As Harold stepped closer to the kids in the back, his friends held their breath. It wasn't going to be pretty.

Then the impossible happened. As Harold spoke to them, the big, rowdy guys seemed to actually calm down. They turned down their music, and started smiling and chatting with Harold as if he were their long lost friend!

"What in the world...?" uttered an amazed Rick.

After a couple of minutes, the little kid headed back to his seat and calmly sat down among his astonished friends.

"Well don't just leave us in suspense," begged Larry. "How did you ever tame those guys?"

"It was really no big deal." Harold said. "I just told them that they looked like nice guys to me, and even though their music was really great, some of us up front were just a little too tired to appreciate it. And you know what? They really were nice guys. They volunteered to turn the music down, and even invited me to sit next to them."

"But I still don't get it!" said Rick. "Those same guys nearly threw me out the window! How did you get them to just melt like butter in the palm of your little hand?"

Harold shrugged. "What can I say? My mom always taught me that if you speak to people nicely, they'll usually listen to you. And that's all I did."

The boys enjoyed the rest of the ride home in peace and thought about the big lesson they all learned from their little friend: that a gentle word can sometimes be stronger than an angry shout.


Ages 3-5

Q. How did the loud kids in the back of the bus feel when Rick yelled at them to be quiet?
A. They felt like they wanted to fight against him, and not stop making noise.

Q. How did they feel when Harold spoke to them nicely?
A. They felt much more like trying to cooperate since when people ask in a nice way, others are more willing to listen.

Ages 6-9

Q. Why did his friends feel that Harold's attempt was doomed to failure?
A. They saw the situation as a power struggle. Whoever was stronger was going to get his way. Once Rick, the biggest and strongest among them, wasn't able to force the kids to quiet down, they figured there was no way that a little kid like Harold could do it.

Q. Why do you think Harold succeeded where Rick failed?
A. When Rick approached the boys, he criticized them sharply with anger. The natural reaction is get defensive and fight back, which is just what the kids did by turning up the music. Harold's approach was different. He didn't see it as a power struggle, so he didn't feel like he had to fight against the other kids. He didn't criticize openly, and even made the boys feel good about themselves. This allowed them to let down their defenses, and respond to his reasonable request.

Ages 10 and Up

Q. When we are struggling against others, what should be our primary goal?
A. Our first reaction might be to say that the main goal is to win the battle and get our way. But if we can find a way to let both sides win, and somehow feel like they got what they need, this is even better. It may take some creative thinking but, more often than not, a solution to disputes can be found where no one comes out a loser.

Q. Our sages teach that just as a pool of water reflects that which approaches it, so too do two hearts reflect one another. What does this mean to you?
A. The sages have revealed a great and powerful secret to living. God has made human nature such that people automatically tend to feel about us the way we feel toward them. If we're loving, they will be too. If we feel hostile, we are likely to get the same reaction. There were great sages who saved themselves from dangerous people by working up such love for them in their hearts that the other just couldn't hurt them. This was what Harold accomplished, that by treating the noisy kids with respect and friendliness he was able to bring the same out of them.


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