Devarim | How do we react to criticism?
Updated: Apr 20
Winston Churchill once wrote: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
In a recent behavioural study, titled: “Behavioral Obligation and Information Avoidance”, a group of students watched a fake documentary about a serious disease called “TAA Deficiency”. The students weren’t informed that TAA Deficiency was fictional; instead, they were given the option of providing a cheek swab to assess their risk of developing the disease. Half the students were told that if they ever developed TAA Deficiency, then the treatment would involve a two-week course of pills. Of this group, 52% agreed to provide the diagnostic cheek swab. The other half of the students were told the treatment would require taking the pills for the rest of their lives. Just 21% of this group agreed to the swab.
The implication of the study is clear – people are resistant to feedback that may oblige them to do something difficult or unwelcome.
Criticism and words of rebuke are particularly difficult to deal with. Implicit in these is the message that we need to change our ways, to modify the way we act. And nobody likes to be told they’re doing the wrong thing. We’ll do anything rather than admit that. Rather than hear the raw truth, we’ll curate perfect online identities, seeking affirmation from friends who often aren’t even acquaintances – that we are accomplished, beautiful, morally upstanding, that our lives our perfect. In the words of the author, Norman Vincent Peale: “The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”
The problem is, our minds are wired to reject or deflect negative feedback. If there’s something wrong with us, something that – if we were aware of it – could push us to improve ourselves or address the problem directly, we’d rather not know about it.
This is unfortunate, because if it comes from the right place – if it’s constructive, and done in the right way, at the right time – criticism can be enormously powerful in driving positive personal change and advancing human achievement.
At the moment, we are immersed in the ‘Three Weeks’ of national mourning. It is the time when we remember the destruction of the two Temples and the exile of our people. This period climaxes on the 9th day of Av – Tisha b’Av – when we undertake the only 25-hour fast of the year besides Yom Kippur. Fasting is not normally associated with mourning. On the contrary, a person who is sitting shiva is not supposed to fast – so why do we fast on this day?
The Rambam (Laws of Fasts 5:1) says we fast on days of national mourning “in order to awaken the hearts [of people], to open the paths of repentance and to be a remembrance of our misdeeds and those of our fathers, which are like ours now …” From the Rambam it is clear that the purpose of fasting is to catalyse the process of reflection, introspection and repentance. Interestingly, fasting is not only the culmination of the Three Weeks – we also kick off this period with a fast day, the Fast of Tammuz. We see that repentance, the process of mending our destructive habits, returning to a state of moral and spiritual purity, is an instrumental part of the Three Weeks.
Viewed in this light, Tisha b’Av and the Three Weeks are a time of national reawakening. And, crucially, it’s a national reawakening sparked by national rebuke and criticism as delivered by our great sages and prophets. The Torah portion we read this week is Devarim, in which Moshe delivers his final address to the nation before passing. He begins this speech not with words of encouragement or affirmation, but, surprisingly, with words of reproof. We continue in this vein by reading the haftorah from Chapter 1 of Isaiah, in which the criticism and rebuke comes on even stronger. The Prophet Isaiah, who lived during the time when the First Temple stood, delivers a stinging critique of the people of his generation, calling on them to repent and return to G-d.
It’s no coincidence that these are the passages we read on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av every year, because they are a reminder that this is a period not just of mourning, but of national rebuke – the Three Weeks are a call to action in which we are reminded where we have strayed as a nation, and shaken from our complacency. In particular, we reflect on, and try to correct, the sin which caused the destruction of the Second Temple and the ensuing exile – divisiveness and baseless hatred between Jews.
Being able to hear criticism is crucial to the repentance process. The Rambam lists 24 things which impede teshuva, and among them is hatred of rebuke. When we bring ourselves low through poor decisions and negative patterns of behaviour, rebuke and criticism can be decisive in arresting the slide and getting our lives back on an upward trajectory. This was the role the prophets performed throughout the ages; this was Moshe’s focus during his last days; and as the Rambam points out, this is an important task of any spiritual leader to this day – to be the voice of conscience, the voice guiding us back to the good.
But, what lies at the heart of the idea of rebuke and reproof? What lies at the heart of the process of teshuva – of repentance? Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz says it is all about guiding us back to the truth. In life, we can make moral mistakes, and those mistakes can permeate our actions, and indeed our entire way of life. The process of going through the experience of reproof and then repentance is a process of returning to the truth. Reproof – and again, it needs to come from the right place, from a place of care and concern and love – can help us snap back to reality. It can begin breaking the bonds between our misdeeds and our pure, essential selves, and guide us back to truth.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz brings a fascinating Midrash demonstrating that rebuke is about guiding a person back to the truth, back to reality. And not about a harsh verbal pounding. The Midrash says when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he rebuked them for the way they had treated him all those years before, and the brothers were in turmoil and unable to respond. The problem is, nowhere in the text did Joseph directly rebuke his brothers for what they did to him. He merely said: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”
Rav Shmuelevitz explains the rebuke is contained in the simple words: “I am Joseph.” Rebuke is about reconnecting us to the truth. He was pointing out to them that their lives had been based on a terrible mistake. When Joseph had related his dreams to them many years before about how they would one day bow down before him, the brothers felt threatened. According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, their concern was that Joseph would oppress them and lord over them and impose on them a brutal tyranny, and they therefore perceived him as a threat to the family. To protect the family, they sold him into slavery in Egypt, separating him from his father, and causing untold grief. But, when Joseph says: “I am Joseph”, he demonstrates to them that their fears were unfounded, because now indeed he does have power over them, and rather than using that power in a destructive fashion, he is in fact using it to help them – to rescue them from famine, to save the family. The rebuke reconnects the brothers to the truth. It is delivered quietly and subtly, but not any less powerfully. And the brothers’ stunned silence confirms that, as they reflect on the weight of their actions.
The Three Weeks and Tisha b’Av are likewise a time to quietly and humbly reflect on our mistakes – on where we have fallen short of our potential as individuals and as a nation – and to use that as a springboard for turning things around. It is particularly a time to reflect on how we, as a nation, can find each other in love, respect and unity. This Shabbat – the Shabbat right before Tisha b’Av – is called Shabbat Chazon, “The Shabbat of Vision”. The name comes from the opening words of the passage we read from the Book of Prophets this Shabbat: “Isaiah’s Vision”. Rav Hirsch says the word for vision, chazon, is related to three other words, meaning “to divide”, “to penetrate”, and “chest”. He explains that if you combine all three of these words, chazon signifies penetrating into the heart of a person – examining what lies beneath the surface, undertaking deep introspection so we can figure out where we are going wrong, and how we can improve.
This is the work of Tisha b’Av and the Three Weeks. We don’t just go through the motions of fasting, we don’t just undertake a series of empty rituals. We ponder the meaning of our existence, we ponder the shape of our lives, and we specifically ponder the spiritual causes of the destruction of the Temple and ensuing exile. And we do so not alone, but together, as a nation.
This is a time of national repentance, when we draw on the energy of being part of the Jewish people, and of our shared national destiny. It’s a time to reflect on where we have come from as a nation and what we can do to move forward together. Absorbing criticism is never easy for anyone. But, this Tisha b’Av let us use the energy of the day to begin a process of repentance and return, restoration and redemption for the Jewish people.