Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Devarim (Deutoronomy 1:1-3:22) Keep Your Eyes on the Prize When You Criticize

This week’s Torah reading is the beginning of the last of the five books of the Torah and was spoken by Moses during the last five weeks of his life. It begins with his giving rebuke to the nation. We can learn a number of lessons about rebuke by analyzing how carefully he chose his words. We will concentrate on one of the lessons Moses has taught us.
The Jews did many things to anger God throughout their sojourn in the wilderness. Moses realizes that he will soon die and he uses the opportunity to remind and admonish the Jews of that generation regarding some of the misdeeds they did during their forty years of wandering. It seems peculiar that he didn’t explicitly reveal each individual wrongdoing; he merely mentioned the place that it happened. The purpose of rebuke is to make someone aware of a wrongdoing, so how can we understand Moses mentioning only the place of the transgression without mentioning what the transgression was?
The commentary of Rashi (11th century) address this question and says that Moses refers only to places “in which they angered the Almighty; he therefore said these words in an obscure manner and only intimated (that they had sinned in these places) to uphold the honor of Israel.” Moses didn’t need to mention the transgressions, the simple hint of mentioning the place was enough. It’s human nature to recognize something from a hint when something is important to us. For example, when a woman talks about her grandparents and says “they’re survivors” everyone realizes that they lived through the horrors of the Holocaust, a tragic memory that is still on everyone’s mind and so mentioning the word “survivor” is all that’s needed to describe it. The same applies to one who truly wants to grow as a person. That person will only need a hint to cause him to remember his wrongdoing and think about insuring that it will not happen again.
This is the first lesson we learn about rebuke. When something about one’s past is embarrassing and we want to help that person, we should not delve into the matter more than is necessary. If one is sincere about rebuke, a simple hint is enough; anything else is degrading and not upholding to the honor of the individual to whom you are attempting to rebuke.
Why is it that when someone wrongs us we insist on detailing every aspect of what the person did, especially in the case of marriage. A wife might be hurt by a husband’s action or comment. If she is clever (King Solomon said, “a woman’s wisdom is what builds her home”), she will merely mention the incident (“remember what happened last night?”) without going into detail about every injustice her husband had committed against her. If she is able to say it in a calm way, her husband will immediately understand and, if he is sincere, will take her mere mention of the incident to heart, speak to her about the entire scenario, and (hopefully) apologize. She can only take this approach if she has her husband’s best interests in mind. If she’s just angry and doesn’t care about him as a person, then she will simply vent and tell him “someone needs to tell you this.” We have an intrinsic sense to know when someone is saying something for our benefit and when someone continues to rant about a wrongdoing. When that happens, we shut down.
Moses was about to die and he knew the people would pay close attention to his words. Before entering the Land of Israel he wanted to make sure they had learned lessons from their many mistakes over the forty-year period in the wilderness. He mentioned the many places they had angered God but said nothing other than the name of the place. He knew they were sincere and he had their best interests in mind.
Let’s learn a lesson from this great leader and give a lot of thought before rebuking someone. Will the person listen? How is the best way to say it? People prepare for college and job interviews; a person should prepare every time he wants to give someone a piece of his mind. Keep it to a minimum and have the other person in mind. Sometimes one sincere word can shed more light and have more impact than an entire monologue.
Good Shabbos.