How to Criticize Without Offending
Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )
Deuteronomy, the fifth Book of the Torah, is also referred to as Mishnah Torah - a review of the Torah. Knowing that he will soon die, Moshe Rabbeinu reviews the Torah with his beloved people and admonishes them for their sins. He begins by alluding to those sins by recalling the places where they occurred, but he does not detail them explicitly until later in the Book. For example, instead of specifically referring to the grievous sin of the Golden Calf, he simply states, "di zahav - much gold."1 Through this method of criticism, he not only preserves their dignity, but he also calls attention to the hazards of too much gold which, if uncontrolled, can lead to a person's downfall.
Our Sages teach that, sadly, the residue of the sin of the Golden Calf is evidenced in every generation. When greed and lust consume us and we compromise our commitment to Torah and mitzvos, we are, in a sense, fashioning our own "Golden Calves." Moreover, anything that takes priority over our God-given covenant becomes our Golden Calf.
Moses imparts to us three steps in the art of constructive criticism:
- When admonishing, be on guard not to put anyone to shame.
- Couch your admonishment in loving and positive terms.
- Remember: A few words are more effective than a deluge of badgering.
This teaching of Moses has served as our model for criticism throughout the centuries. Our Sages instruct those who would criticize to "push away with the left hand (the weaker one) and simultaneously draw near with the right hand (the stronger one),"2 so that the person we are admonishing may come to realize that it is not he who is being censured, but his actions. Finally, Moses taught us that, when offering criticism, our words should not only be censorious, but also therapeutic, and they should demonstrate how to overcome weakness and temptation.
LESS IS MORE
Too often, when we admonish members of our own families and friends, we have a tendency to fall into the trap of "overkill." We go on and on, and unfortunately, don't quite know where or when to stop. To be sure, we may be motivated by love and genuine concern, but, because of our heavy-handedness, by the time we finish, our words are interpreted as abuse rather than as loving, concerned guidance. Not only does such criticism fail to be instructive or helpful, but it will elicit just the opposite reaction. Instead of correction and improvement, it will generate resentment, disdain, and further rebellion.
Moses teaches us that, when it comes to criticism, less is more. There is a Talmudic dictum, "Die l'chachima b'remiza - for the wise, an allusion suffices."3 Admittedly, there are those who are not wise and remain deaf to admonition, but such people remain obdurate no matter what, and even a sledgehammer won't move them. Harping on a subject is not only counterproductive, but it will generate contempt. Before criticizing, collect your thoughts and weigh your words carefully. King Solomon taught, "Don't criticize a fool, for he will hate you; criticize a wise man and he will love you."4
THE TORAH SPEAKS FOR ALL ETERNITY
The verse states, "Moses began explaining this Torah."5 The Midrash teaches us that Moses translated the Torah into 70 different languages, encompassing all the languages of the nations.
At first glance, it is difficult to understand why Moses would go to such great lengths in translating the Torah. After all, our ancestors didn't speak these foreign tongues, but Moses reviewed the Torah in 70 different languages, for he foresaw all the different exiles that we would have to endure until the coming of Mashiach, and he wanted us to feel connected to our Torah no matter where fate took us. Moses also knew that in future generations there would be those among us who would argue that outside the Land of Israel, one need not live a life governed by Torah. Therefore, he taught us the Torah in all languages, so that it would speak to us in all situations, in every generation, and in every culture.
Our lives as individuals and as a nation, indeed our very survival, are contingent upon our connection to Torah. Through our Torah, we become a unified and cohesive people. This message of unity was critical for our people as they were about to enter the Promised Land. In our Torah, in our unity, is to be found our strength. Thus, the Torah speaks to us for all eternity.
IT'S NEVER TOO LATE TO START A NEW LIFE
Perhaps what is most telling is that even as Moses recounts the names of all the places where the Jewish people angered God during their 40 years of sojourning in the desert, he also demonstrated to them the extent of God's great love, for despite their rebelliousness, the Almighty always forgave, and the people flourished. Thus, Moses reminds the nation, "Hashem, your God, has multiplied you, and behold, you are like the stars of heaven in abundance.6
Herein lies another lesson that should not be taken for granted. We should never make someone feel that, because of his sins, he has become persona non grata. Similarly, we should never feel that, because of our sins, we have been cut off from God and can no longer come back to Him, Heaven forbid. If our repentance is sincere, God will always embrace us and enable us to start life anew. Nevertheless, we must be on guard not to abuse His love, rationalizing that sin will have no consequences because God will forgive.
BEWARE OF YOUR GENETIC PREDISPOSITION
We can understand Moshe Rabbeinu admonishing those who sinned, but what is perplexing in this parashah is that his criticism is leveled at those who never participated in those heinous deeds. Moses is bidding farewell in the 40th year of their long journey in the desert, and the generation that had sinned had already died, so he was actually addressing the children of the rebels. Why, then, did he castigate them? They had not sinned. It was their fathers who were guilty.
That which is spiritual can very often be best understood through the physical. If you go to a physician for a checkup, you are given a form to fill out on which you have to respond to a number of questions regarding any family history of cancer, diabetes, neurological and mental illness, etc. You might very well protest that you are feeling perfectly fine and are not suffering from any of those ailments. Why, then, must you respond to those questions?
The explanation is that if there is a family history of illness, the doctor has to be aware of it, for you might just have a genetic disposition that must be monitored. Similarly, we have spiritual dispositions to character flaws, and must be ever on guard regarding them. For example, if we were raised in a family in which tempers quickly flared, in which, instead of rationally communicating, people shouted abusively, chances are that we will repeat that same pattern of behavior, even though, logically, we find it reprehensible and reject it. Therefore, we must be ever on guard not to repeat the aberrations of past generations.
YOU CAN REDEEM YOUR ANCESTORS
By admonishing a new generation, Moses not only alerted us to be on guard against succumbing to the weaknesses of the past, but he also demonstrated how we can rectify the failings of our fathers and bring them merit in the heavens above. So while we, in the physical world, may inherit the possessions of our parents and grandparents, in the spiritual world, just the opposite holds true. Our parents and grandparents are elevated in the heavens above through our deeds, through our commitment to Torah, mitzvos, tzedakah, and chesed.
Our father, Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis, zt"l, when officiating at funerals, would very often tell the bereaved members of the family to send daily "Torah-mitzvah care packages" to the departed. What an amazing challenge! Not only does the Torah enable us to start a new life of blessing, but through our Torah and mitzvos, we can also bring that blessing to those of our family members who are in the heavens above.
- Deuteronomy 1:1.
- Tractate Sanhedrin 107b.
- Midrash Shmuel 22:22.
- Proverbs 9:8.
- Deuteronomy 1:5.
- Ibid. 1:10.