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How to criticise



Rabbi Ari Kievman

Director, Chabad Seniors and Chabad’s Goodness and Kindness Centre

Have you ever been unfairly criticised? How did it feel? Were you able to accept it? Did it leave you feeling grateful and appreciative of the comments? Was it constructive enough to empower you to improve? Long before Dale Carnegie, Moses taught us much about critique and how best it is conveyed.

This Shabbos we commence reading the fifth of the Five Books of Moses, Deuteronomy. It opens with the final words that Moses addressed to the Jewish people, his farewell before he was to pass on from this world.

Besides for reminding the people of their covenant with G-d and adding some more commandments, he seized the opportunity to “speak to all Israel… in the desert” enumerating several places through which they journeyed.

Rashi explains that the places he mentioned actually are references to various mistakes the Jews made along their journey in the wilderness since the Exodus. Moses was alluding to their behaviour at those particular locations and subtly rebuked them for it. Knowing his passing was imminent, he insisted on expressing these final thoughts.

Let’s examine Moses’ model of giving critique.

Sometimes rebuke is necessary. A leader has the responsibility to reproach his people, but Moses included himself in the admonishment as the verse indicates he did it before all of Israel himself included.

Even within his rebuke Moses showed his empathy to the people. Instead of mentioning the exact sins and their locations, Moses just referred to them. He alluded to the incidents that occurred which was enough of a reminder without scalding them for each event.

When he mentioned “the wilderness,” though he was reminding them of what they did, he was also suggesting that after all they were wandering “in the desert.” 

He sympathised with them, suggesting that it was somewhat understandable that they erred, considering the extenuating circumstances. 

It is clear that Moses addressed the people with love and sensitivity. First he praised their qualities, and only afterwards did he rebuke them.

The premise here is simple but powerful. The intention of the critique was clearly so that the Jews, made aware of their shortcomings, would learn and grow from their past. And so his manner of communicating, far from being degrading, was first empowering and loving.

Moses waited until he knew the people would accept his words. He first opened their hearts, by noting their unique qualities. Then softly and expertly wove in his reprimands, including his own self throughout, to maintain this openness.

The principles here are timeless. Mentorship and guidance are invaluable assets in the process of growth for any human, but the guidance must be given in a voice and manner that fosters the recipient’s empowerment.

With the saddest day on our calendar, Tisha B’Av upon us, we can apply these lessons to undo the baseless hatred for which our Temple was destroyed. Unconditional love doesn’t necessarily mean tolerating everyone’s mishigas. In the proper forum and with the above principles, we can express our feelings and make the wrongs of others right.

Sadly, some Jews are currently contributing to the current anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Do you think it’s possible for either side to engage with respect?

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