Criticsm, Candor, and Clothes from the Sea
How can we ensure that our children will listen to our rebuke?
One of the hardest things for a human being to do is accept rebuke. It is never pleasant to have our faults highlighted and to be made aware of our imperfections by another party. How, then, can we ensure that our children will listen to our mussar? What criteria must we fulfill so that our words truly enter their hearts?
We find the answer in the first verse of Devarim, in the way our manhig, Moshe Rabbeinu, gave mussar to our forefathers.The first condition under which mussar must be given is “in the Aravah,” which is related to the Hebrew word me’urav, meaning “involved.” It is only when a child sees that you are involved in his life on an intimate level that he will accept your rebuke. If he only hears from you when he’s causing trouble in yeshivah, your words will fall on deaf ears.
An involved parent is one who inquires constantly about her child’s life. She is aware of his daily struggles and successes, knows how he spends his time and with whom, and what his favorite foods and activities are. If a parent gets involved only when things go awry, how will her mussar ever find its way to her child’s heart? The second essential criterion is “mol Suf,”which literally means “before the end (sof) [of his days].”
Moshe Rabbeinu reprimanded the nation shortly before his death because he wanted to avoid repeating his message numerous times. If your mussar shmuess keeps going in circles, your children won’t listen. They’ll just assume that the tape recorder has been rewound and that the recording will soon end. Mussar must be given rarely, not on a repetitive basis.
The third condition for optimal results is “after he killed Sichon…and Og.” It was only after Moshe gave klal Yisrael the tremendous gift of ridding them of their enemies that he delivered his tochachah (reproof). Harav Shteinman, shlita, says that before a parent offers rebuke to a child, he must already have given him five compliments that day.
The ratio of compliments to criticism must be five to one. If we want our children to accept our criticism, we must first prep them with hefty doses of positive input—words that let them know how proud we are of them and how much they mean to us. Only when our mussar fulfills all three of these conditions and is delivered with a light hand and gentle demeanor will it be effective.
The Nine Days is a time of rebuke. It is a time meant to awaken in us a desire to improve, to come closer to our sisters and brothers and to Hashem. It is counterproductive to try to escape this, to search for loopholes and heteirim to help us forget the heavy sadness that is supposed to engulf us.
The Midrash in Eichah tells a beautiful story of a Jewish princess, Miriam bat Baitus, who was abducted by the Romans and held captive on a ship. As the vessel sailed past the Jewish city of Akko, Miriam cried out, “My fellow Jews! Please fulfill the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim and save me!” Her brethren hastily gathered the necessary funds and ran to the port.
After the Romans counted the hefty sum, they agreed to hand Miriam over, but on one condition: they would first remove her royal clothes. A pious young woman, Miriam immediately hid under a rock in the sea. “Please bring me some clothes,” she begged. A pauper on shore removed his dirty robe and threw it in her direction. As Miriam dunked the garment in the water in an attempt to remove some of its filth, a tempestuous wave swept it away from her.
Again she went into hiding until another article of clothing was tossed to her. Again a wave swept over her and the garment escaped her hands, floating off into the distance. When the people on shore tried to find her a third garment, Miriam called out, “Don’t bother, my brothers. Let it be. Let the Creditor come and collect the debt that I owe Him. Every piece of clothing you bring me will be taken away, for I don’t deserve it. It is His will for me to sit and be ashamed.”
The end of the Midrash is very beautiful. When Hashem heard Miriam’s words, He said to the sea, “Return her clothes to her.” Soon after, her royal clothing turned up at her side and she emerged from the sea as a princess. What do we learn from this? It wasn’t until the exact moment that Miriam accepted Hashem’s rebuke that her garments were returned. It is not our duty to make ourselves happy when Hashem wants us to feel sad and broken.
There’s a reason He doesn’t want us to wash our laundry, listen to music or bathe in the usual manner during the Nine Days. We aren’t meant to be in good spirits. Finding a heter to make ourselves comfortable only distances us from the rebuke our Father is trying to deliver. During this period of lamentation we must remind ourselves, “Now is the time to mourn. Now is the time for the Creditor to collect His debt.” When we do so with integrity, Hashem will open the sea of mercy and return to us everything we’ve lost.
We are experiencing so much sorrow during this turbulent time in Eretz Yisrael. We’ve been stripped of our beautiful, kingly clothes. Every day we are losing beautiful boys who should have been chatanim under the chuppah. We must say to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, “I know I don’t look regal right now, but that’s only my exterior. Look inside me and see how much I want to come closer to You.” This is a war of “tunnels.” It is a war in which we must focus on cleansing the innermost recesses of our souls, eradicating all the negativity we harbor toward each other.
The Gaon of Vilna says that when a person is filled with hatred for his fellow Jew, the aveirah for which our holy Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, he may look very frum on the outside but his insides are filthy. Hashem, disregard the soiled exterior of your nation! Look at how 20,000 people showed up at the levayah of the lone soldier only because they wanted to do a chesed shel emet (true act of benevolence).
We are all pure on the inside, can’t You see? When I observe my students in secular places like Tel Aviv, I sometimes see that they aren’t dressed royally. They don’t look very good. But they are Jewish queens on the inside, and I beg Hashem, “Please, in the merit of our desire to do what’s right, show us the light at the end of the tunnel.” May it happen speedily in our days.