Sunday, July 22, 2012

The sting of criticism / Devarim

Imagine that you are attending a lovely dinner party in celebration of the 40th anniversary and retirement of the CEO of the company where you work. The CEO started the company, nurtured it, and grew it into an admirable success. Following dinner, the retiring CEO strides to the podium, leans into the microphone, and says, “For 40 years we have worked side-by-side to build this company. I have poured my heart and soul into it, but you have not always supported my efforts. In fact, you have failed me on many occasions…” and with that beginning, he enumerates the ways his employees have disappointed him over the years. Yes, the business grew and succeeded, but the road was twisted and rocky, and it is the stones and hairpin turns that the CEO now recalls.

Sefer Devarim (the Book of Deuteronomy) presents itself as a compilation of Moses’ final addresses to the Israelites. He will soon retire from life, and the Israelites will enter the Land without him. Moses begins by recalling Sinai and God’s promise that they would inherit the Land of the their ancestors. But then Moses says abruptly,

… “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. The Lord your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky… How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and bickering! (Deuteronomy 1:9-12)

A bit later, Moses recounts the episode of the spies and reminds the assembled nation,

Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Lord your God. You sulked in your tents and said, “It is because the Lord hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorite to wipe us out.” (Deuteronomy 1:26-27)

Why does Moses begin on such a critical and demoralizing note? We might say that he was scrupulously following Torah’s instruction, Do not hate your fellow in your heart. You should surely rebuke your neighbor and not bear sin because of him (Leviticus 19:17). Our Sages understood this verse as a mandate to rebuke those who have sinned. But of course that rebuke happened -- long before when the events occurred.

After telling us of our duty to rebuke, in the next breath the Rabbis tell us that there is a proper way to do this. Here are the principles:
1.     Do it gently and quietly.
2.     Do it only in private and avoid embarrassing the recipient.
3.     Rebuke only with the intent to help the recipient to do better.
These are difficult conditions to fulfill. Rebuke creates a most uncomfortable situation for both the one delivering rebuke, and the one receiving it. No one likes to be criticized and most of us don’t like to criticize another to his or her face.

When the Sages discuss how and when to rebuke another person, we find a trilogy of opinions that sound remarkably contemporary:

R. Tarfon said, “I wonder whether there is anyone in this generation who can accept reproof, for if one says to him, ‘Remove the mote from between your eyes,’ he would reply, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes!’ ”

R. Eleazar b. Azariah said, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to reprove!”

R. Yochanan ben Nuri said, “I call heaven and earth to witness for myself that Akiba was often rebuked by me, for I used to complain against him before Rabban Gamliel, and he showered love upon me all the more, fulfilling what has been said, Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; reprove a wise person and he will love you (Proverbs 9:8).”

(B.Arachin 16b)

Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Eleazar b. Azariah tell us that delivering rebuke is essentially pointless because people reject it, and no one is really knows how to deliver it anyway. R. Yochanan b. Nuri, in providing the exceptional case, reinforces his colleagues’ argument: there is none like Akiba, just as there was none like Moses. Therefore, rebuke is a practice of the past.

Most of us think we’re not critical people, but the reality is that knowingly or unknowingly, we deliver criticism and rebuke day in and day out.
  • The mother who visits her grown daughter and says, “What an unusual way to make quiche! I’ve never seen this before,” may believe it to be a neutral statement, but her daughter may well hear, “She thinks it’s awful.”
  • The boss who says, “I’m glad to see you got this report in on time,” may think her words are encouraging, but her employee might hear, “She’s thinking about all the deadlines I missed; I finally get one in on time and she hints at the ones I missed.”
  • The teacher who says to his student, “Your story is interesting,” may believe he has said something positive, but every child knows that when parents and teachers say only that your story or artwork is “interesting,” it means they don’t like it.

The Rabbis give us an excellent set of overarching principles, but we need to put flesh on these bones to deal with the nitty-gritty of life. How should we frame our message? What words should we use and which should we avoid? How can we ensure that we are constructive and not insulting? In truth, this is something we should all study diligently because even when we don’t mean to be critical, often our words are heard as criticism, and they wound. Here are a few helpful resources:
  1. A concise set of 10 excellent principles and rules.
  2. Another concise list, but with suggestions on how to phrase things. One caveat: I would recommend steering clear using the word “but” in any sentence.
  3. This one is the very best of all because it is detailed -- we learn how to use words carefully, both what to say and what not to say. This document was formulated for the workplace, but is easily translated to every other situation and relationship.

Let’s assume for the moment that the mother, boss, and teacher mentioned earlier did have something negative in the backs of their minds. What might they have said?
  • The mother might have said, “You certainly are adventurous and innovative. This is a new combination to me. Personally, I’m not sure it works for me, but I love trying something new. Thanks for sharing this with me.”
  • The boss might have said, “Thank you for getting this to me on time. I know how tough that can be, but you have helped me because I’m going to make use of your report right away. I appreciate your effort.”
  • The teacher might have said, “I loved that you tried something new in this story, and used some new and descriptive words I’ve never seen you use before. I think there might be a few places where the reader could be confused, but these are all fixable. Did you know that all great writers go over their work again and again, making corrections on top of corrections?”

Proverbs 18:21 reminds us, Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love her [the tongue] shall eat its fruit.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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