Parashat Devarim: Criticism stemming from love

Only when the person being criticized is confident that the criticism comes from a place of love does it have a chance to induce change.

 IT WAS important the Children of Israel feel the admonisher loves them with all his heart. (photo credit: PUBLICDOMAINPICTURES.NET)
IT WAS important the Children of Israel feel the admonisher loves them with all his heart.
(photo credit: PUBLICDOMAINPICTURES.NET)

Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, which we begin reading this Shabbat, is composed of three long speeches delivered by Moses to the Jewish nation during his last days. In addition to these speeches, we read descriptions of Moses’s actions during his last days, completing the writing of the Torah, and his blessings to the tribes of Israel on his last day.

The book begins by telling us where and when the speeches were made. “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on that side of the Jordan in the desert” – this is where Moses spoke to the Children of Israel. This is, of course, the eastern side of the Jordan river since the Children of Israel had not yet crossed the Jordan to enter the Land of Israel. After that, we read, “It came to pass in the 40th year, in the 11th month, on the first of the month, that Moses spoke to the Children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 1:1-3). 

After the words “on that side of the Jordan,” which tells us where Moses delivered his speeches, we get a list of names of places that are hard to identify: “In the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav.” 

A list of sins

It could be explained that this list is meant to give us an accurate location on the eastern side of the Jordan. That was the explanation given by many important commentators. For example, the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, northern France, 12th century) the grandson of the famous commentator Rashi whose work he continued, explained that this list of places is “simply making a mark inside a mark.” Other commentators agreed and even identified the places mentioned in this list.

However, an ancient commentary that began already with Onkelos – written in the 2nd century by a Roman convert to Judaism in the beit midrash (study hall) of the sages of that generation, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua – explains this list of places as hints referring to places where the Children of Israel sinned

Picture from the parasha (credit: YORAM RAANAN)Picture from the parasha (credit: YORAM RAANAN)

This seemingly innocuous list, explains Onkelos and many others, hints at various events that occurred during the 40 years of wandering in the desert. Moses’s intention was, therefore, to rebuke the Children of Israel and remind them of those events so they would not repeat those behaviors after his death. 

This is also Rashi’s interpretation. He adds: “Since these are words of rebuke and he [Moses] enumerates here all the places where they angered the Omnipresent, therefore it makes no explicit mention of the incidents [in which they transgressed], but rather merely alludes to them [by mentioning the names of the places] out of respect for Israel,” (Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:1).

“Since these are words of rebuke and he [Moses] enumerates here all the places where they angered the Omnipresent, therefore it makes no explicit mention of the incidents [in which they transgressed], but rather merely alludes to them [by mentioning the names of the places] out of respect for Israel.”

Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:1

ONE OF the sages of midrash noticed something interesting as a result of this commentary. It was specifically Moses, Israel’s leader who loved them, who takes on the role of rebuking the Children of Israel, while their blessings are heard from Balaam, the hostile idolatrous magician. What is behind this switch in roles?

The midrash explains this as follows: Rabbi Aha son of Rabbi Hanina said, “The words of rebuke should have been said by Balaam, and the blessings by Moses. Still, had it been Balaam who rebuked them, the Israelites would have said: ‘Someone who hates us is rebuking us!’ 

“And had Moses blessed them, the nations of the world would have said: ‘Someone who loves them is blessing them.’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Let Moses who loves them rebuke them and let Balaam who hates them bless them so that the blessings and the rebuke should be clarified in the hands of the nation of Israel’” (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1).

“The words of rebuke should have been said by Balaam, and the blessings by Moses. Still, had it been Balaam who rebuked them, the Israelites would have said: ‘Someone who hates us is rebuking us!’ And had Moses blessed them, the nations of the world would have said: ‘Someone who loves them is blessing them.’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Let Moses who loves them rebuke them and let Balaam who hates them bless them so that the blessings and the rebuke should be clarified in the hands of the nation of Israel’”

Deuteronomy Rabbah 1

For the rebuke to be accepted, it was important that the Children of Israel feel secure that the admonisher loves them with all his heart. Had Balaam been the one to rebuke them, they would have rejected his words assuming they stemmed from his hatred of them. 

This is an important thing to remember in education and in all interpersonal relationships. If you think it is important to criticize someone, first make sure they feel secure in your love for them. Criticism that does not stem from love is not only inefficient, but also causes damage. Only when the person being criticized is confident that the criticism comes from a place of love does it have a chance to induce change. ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.