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Devarim

Devorim: How to Administer Reproof – Rabbi Zamir Cohen

Before his death, Moses taught the correct way to give over criticism so it will be accepted. What is the formula?

Devorim: How to Administer Reproof – Rabbi Zamir Cohen
This Shabbat we begin reading the fifth and final Book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. The book opens with the verses: "These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Reed Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav.”

At first glance, one would think that the places mentioned are just places where Moses addressed the children of Israel. But Rashi explains: "Since he is rebuking them here and enumerating all the places where they angered G-d, out of respect for Israel he didn’t explicitly mention the incidents, but merely alluded to [the places where they occurred]."

In other words, now that Moses was about to pass away, he wanted to rebuke the Jewish people for all the times that they had acted wrongly during the forty years in the wilderness, so they would know what they have to rectify and improve in the future. Israel's leader does not rebuke the people directly, but every place which Moses pointed out hints to an occasion when the Jewish people sinned. The other side of the Jordan... opposite Suf…  remember what happened there?
 
Why was his rebuke delivered in such a roundabout way? Rashi explains: "out of respect for Israel."
 
This is a great lesson for anyone who wishes to admonish another. A husband who wants to criticize his wife, an employer who wants to tell off an employee, a teacher who is rebuking his student, a person who has an issue with his neighbor — the right approach for giving any kind of criticism is by reducing the unpleasantness. When a person is angry at another, his usual tendency is to stress the other’s negative side and exaggerate how badly he acted. The criticizer uses harsh words, a strict tone of voice, and similar body language and facial expressions to convey his anger.
 
Most of the time this method achieves the opposite effect. Such admonishment causes the receiver to reject the criticism out of hand instead of internalizing it and changing himself, and to sling mud back at the criticizer for his own shortcomings. A fiery rebuke just fans a fiery response, and all it causes is strife and controversy.
 
Moses teaches us: You want to reprove a person? Do it through gentle allusion. A smart person will understand the allusion himself and correct his flaws. Whether the rebuke is accepted or not depends on how it was given. If the reprover would begin and finish with praise, and in the middle gently hint to the improvement needed, it would be effective.
 
This approach will enable the criticism to enter a person's heart. A person does not like to hear his faults and he views it as a personal attack against him. He will go on the defensive by counter-attacking and will not accept the reproof. But if one praises him and gently inserts a message about what has to be changed, there is a good chance that he will accept the words. He will understand that we respect him and want his benefit, and will make the effort to rectify what warrants rectification.
 
Giving reproof is not a simple or easy commandment. But when it is done with honesty and love and an unpatronizing attitude — it can turn many away from wrongdoing. May we see the virtues of our fellow man and not their shortcomings.
 
Shabbat shalom.