Friendly Criticism- Devarim 5781

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah, Parashah 1) assumes that the word “devarim” does not refer to ordinary words but to words of rebuke. Even with this assumption, Rabbi Aha, the son of Rabbi Hanina (Section 4), notes that a question still lingers. Moses speaks the “devarim” under consideration. Why is the case that Moses speaks these words of rebuke? Would it not have been more fitting for someone like Bil’am – an enemy of the people Israel – to speak them? And concomitantly, would it not have been more fitting for Moses – not Bil’am – to speak the words of blessing?


Rabbi Aha concludes that what is counterintuitive is actually quite sensible. The people Israel would dismiss words of rebuke were Bil’am to utter them since he was an enemy and his words would be accounted as the ranting of a hater. And the people Israel would dismiss the words of blessing were Moses to utter them since he was one of them and his words would be accounted as no more than self-serving. Therefore God directs Moses to rebuke the Israelites and Bil’am to bless them. The operant principle is that the rebuke of friend will more likely be accepted, as would the compliments of an enemy.


The Midrash reveals itself to be preternaturally cognizant of human psychology. It aims to situate the Torah within a profound understanding of human perceptions. People tend to disbelieve what supporters tell them. (A mother’s compliment, for example, is hardly ever accepted as an honest assessment of one’s skill or achievement.) And, in contrast, people are more open to accept the accolades of outsiders. (After all, they have no reason to be generous in their assessment. Quite the opposite: they have good reason to hold back on any flattering remark.)


A lesson that emerges from the Midrash is friendship opens the way for criticism. Rather than taking friendship as protection from censure, friendship ought to be an invitation for censure. Friends will always be more likely to take criticism from friends. And there can be no greater gesture of true friendship than the desire to see a friend improve.




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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