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Criticism: Constructive or counter-productive?

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What’s the best way to influence people to modify their behaviour?

The Book of Deuteronomy begins with Moses castigating his people about their past misbehaviour.

He lists the places where the Israelites sinned, without specifying the details. Moses only alludes to their misdeeds, without elaborating on all the gory details, so as not to humiliate them.

Clearly, even if we must criticise someone, we should take care to do it sensitively, in a way that maintains their dignity.

Moses did not say, “You lousy idolators! How could you do such a thing?! You saw G-d at Sinai and now you prance in front of a Golden Calf?!”

No. Not at all. Moses said but two words, and even those two words were ever so subtle.

Di zahav.

It sounds like a place, but Rashi tells us it’s actually a subtle reference to the Israelites’ sin of the Golden Calf. Di can be understood as dai (“it is enough” – as in Dayeinu), and zahav means gold. Even in his rebuke, Moshe was defending his people. Why did they sin? Because of an over-abundance of gold.

Or, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks put it, “Moses’ criticism of his people was accepted by them because they knew that he was also their greatest defender.” Having argued their case before G-d Almighty Himself, Moses had credibility. They knew he loved them, and they trusted him.

He was always extremely careful not to humiliate the people when he rebuked them.

It’s easy to criticise. Some people seem to do it quite naturally. But being critical of others requires deep wisdom, sensitivity, respect, and consideration. We can’t just “fly off the handle” and let rip. G-d forbid! Embarrassing and putting people to shame publicly is not only a grave offence in its own right, but it will more than likely fail to achieve the desired purpose. On the contrary, after such a royal dressing-down, the offended offender will probably go back to their old ways with a vengeance.

To be effective, criticism must be constructive. If we allow it to become a personal attack or vendetta, it will only fan the fires of dissension.

My late mother, of blessed memory, had a genuine, natural talent. She was able to tell it like it was, and could criticise people without causing them to become defensive or angry. How? Because she did it with such genuine sincerity and love. The recipients knew that she was right, and that she meant it for their own good. She always remained the best of friends with the people she had reprimanded.

How I wish I had her gift!

At the end of the day, did anyone sum it up better than King Solomon in Proverbs?

Do not chastise a fool, lest he hate you. Chastise a wise man, and he will love you.

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