Excerpted from Erica Brown’s In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books
We grow only through discomfort. When we are comfortable, there’s no reason to change. The book of Proverbs helps us appreciate the voices of those who make us feel uncomfortable with ourselves: “He who criticizes a man will in the end find more favor than he who flatters him” (Proverbs 28:23). We all love compliments. They make us feel special and connected to the person who offers them. But Proverbs tells us to be wary of the flatterer, the person who gives us too many compliments. We will do better with the person who offers us solid criticism that can help us grow and change in the future, than with one who offers us the fleeting luxury of a feel-good moment. How well do you take criticism? How well do you give it?
The book of Proverbs contains many descriptions of the wise man and the foolish one, comparing and contrasting them, praising one and criticizing the other. One of the most meaningful differences between the wise person and the fool is how they each take criticism. “Do not criticize the fool for he will hate you. Correct the wise man, and he will love you” (ibid. 9:8).
To understand why wisdom requires criticism, we have to think about the nature of rebuke. To do so, we turn to the very first verses of Deuteronomy, to the parasha of Devarim, the Torah portion that is always read during the Three Weeks. The Hebrew word “devarim” means “words” or “things.” In fact, words are things, giving the translation double weight. Many will shrug off an abuse of language with the simple dismissal, “It’s just words,” but Jewish tradition, from its semantic roots, treats words as having the concreteness of objects. They are our intellectual and emotional currency; they exist in the world. They are not wind or air that circulates lightly among us. They have weight and measure. Selecting the right words, the right context in which to use those words, and the right people to whom to say them is the better part of wisdom, especially when it comes to giving criticism.
When it comes to the things that we have to say, but don’t always want to say, we look to Moses for advice. We open the book of Words/Things and read the following verses: “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. Through the wilderness, in the Arabah, near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-Zahab, it is eleven days from Horeb to Kadesh-Barnea by the Mount Seir route. It was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses addressed the Israelites…” (Deuteronomy 1:1–3). Rashi adds layers of nuance to what seems like a typical biblical introduction, merely offering us the place and time of events. Moses, he contends, gathered everyone together so that there was no one absent who could later say that Moses spoke and no one contended with him. In other words, when everyone is present at a speech and hears the same words, there can be argument over interpretation but no refutation. Everyone knows who spoke up in debate. Rashi cites this ancient midrashic reading because the verse says “to all Israel,” an expression which is surprisingly rare in describing Moses’ audience. The actual words, “See, you are all here; he who has anything to say in reply, let him reply,” is a remarkably democratic position. If Moses is going to chastise the Israelites for a difficult past, let all be present to hear it so that anyone can counter, if anyone dares.
All of the complicated place names that may mean little to later readers are locations where the Israelites sinned. Rashi surmises that the audience would have well understood the significance – and implicit shame – in the mention of these specific stops along the way; the text does so subtly, Rashi observes, to protect the honor of the Israelites. While we may not be able to recall the import of these places, we can understand the significance that names embody. Consider how we can immediately conjure images of freedom just by naming a few cities: Gettysburg, Selma, Philadelphia, Boston, Jamestown.
Why does Moses gather everyone together in the last year of this wearying journey? Any number of possibilities come to mind. He could be preparing them for life in the Promised Land, giving over laws that they have not had to keep thus far, but that would be critical as they neared the land – such as laws related to war, to agriculture and to the formation of a government – all matters that are discussed in this last of the five books. He could review history and offer his perspective on the past, which is certainly one way that this farewell speech is understood. He could be preparing final words of inspiration, since he knows that he will not be making the last leg of the journey.
Rashi believes that Moses, following in the footsteps of Jacob, Joshua, Samuel and David, gathered everyone together to rebuke them before he took leave of this world. There is something harsh and grating in this idea, that the last words of a beloved and beleaguered leader to his followers are words of chastisement. The Sifrei, the midrashic compilation on Deuteronomy, presents four reasons why people offer rebuke on their deathbeds: in order to criticize once rather than repeatedly; the shame of the person criticized is mitigated by the fact that this is a final meeting; to prevent the person who is rebuked from harboring a grudge against the rebuker; in order that they may part in peace.
Each of these reasons aims at clearing a path so the relationship can move forward. The last words someone utters are profoundly impactful, and stay embedded in the receiver’s mind, precisely because they are the last ones. If you were to hear criticism again and again it would wash over you without really making a soulful mark. Sincere and thoughtful feedback not only fulfills the biblical command, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your friend” (Leviticus 19:7), it also helps clear the barriers that stand in the way of a relationship. Rather than a final parting with the mystery of words unsaid, a last-ditch effort at advice and guidance can be its own meaningful legacy, a gift from the person who is leaving us forever.
Although Maimonides tells us how best to give difficult feedback – softly, in private and for the good of the person and not for our own good (Laws of Character 6:7) – we all still struggle with hearing it well and not putting up our defenses. Rabbeinu Baĥya ben Asher, the thirteenth-century Spanish scholar, writes in his introduction to Deuteronomy that Moses gathered everyone together to leave his ethical last will and testament, even though not all in the group were willing to listen:
It is well known that most rebukes [sic] are directed at the average person, the masses; the masses have different views, are not homogeneous…Seeing that all these people do not have minds of their own, they do not easily accept rebukes [sic] seeing that what one person likes another dislikes. What is pleasing to one person is unacceptable to others.
When in the presence of many people, it is always easy to believe that the rabbi offering up a heated sermon, or an angry boss at a staff meeting, is talking to or about someone else.
Rabbeinu Baĥya quotes two Talmudic passages to validate his reading. One states that younger scholars are preferred over older ones because the younger scholars are less critical. It’s easier to be popular if you make people feel good than if you make people feel challenged. The other reflects the words of Rabbi Tarfon: “I wonder if there exists in this generation anyone who knows how to accept rebuke.”
The way that we give and receive criticism is often shaped by culture, community expectations and societal norms. When we are defensive, we lose a whole avenue to introspection that can help us develop and grow in our sensitivity and thoughtfulness to others. Think of the helpful words of a mentor, a supervisor, or someone who took your last performance review seriously and gave you feedback that might not have been comfortable to hear but helped you become a better professional. Or the friend who you thought insulted you, but actually helped you become a better parent. There’s the word your wife said that offended you, but that made you see that you weren’t treating one of your children with the proper respect. Every day we receive messages about ourselves. Every once in a while, someone cares enough to tell us what they see. Correct the wise person and he will love you…
Kavana for the Day
Part one: Ask someone who is close to you either professionally or personally for feedback about something very specific. Listen carefully and prompt with questions. Think afterwards about what they said, how it made you feel, and what you’re going to do about it.
Part two: Think of a relationship that has suffered because you have not been telling someone what you really think. Find a way to give respectful feedback that shows love and concern. How did you do?