Who among us can take criticism well? Who among us is that thick-skinned, that mature, that we do not mind a little rebuke, a little castigation, a little recounting of our faults that lays us open?
When I was a child, I had a mother who was stingy with praise and much of the time, instead of seeing the silver lining saw the dust motes lying underneath that piece of cloth. Even when I brought home a straight-A report card, she would worry that I was too full of myself to keep it up next semester. When I spoke at my high school graduation, she would say the speech was good but couldn’t it have been a bit shorter?
The reason I bring up my childhood memories is that a recent Torah portion, Devarim, features the big man himself, Moses, resorting to criticism of the Israelites for not showing a little faith in God. It is his valedictory address, at the start of the last book of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy, and Moses uses the occasion to recap a life well lived – leading his people out of Egypt and taking them through the “great and awesome wilderness” to the land of Canaan. He plays a highlight reel of accomplishment from other portions of the Bible.
But this is no mere goodbye address to his people, even though Moses at this point knows that he will not enter the Promised Land and must pass the reins to the warrior Joshua to batten down the walls and enter Canaan. You’d think Moses would be wistful, reflecting on his good deeds and the awesome accomplishments that have sparked Jewish existence as we know it.
But no. Moses is critical. He is in no reminiscent mood. He is angry. He is in no frame of mind to sentimentalize and recall fondly. He instead gives a rant about faithlessness, how the people should have followed his lead instead of straying from him and, by virture of that, from God.
He reminds the people that “God will fight for you just as God did right before your eyes in Egypt.” But he has not always seen his followers believe him, and he reprimands a people who have dismayed Moses with revolts and faith in false Gods that has blackened Moses’s eyes.
Several telling statements make this a curious end passage for Moses. Elsewhere in the Bible, the pronoun “we” is used by Moses to describe the Israelites; in this parshat, Moses uses the term “you” more than 100 times in just over 100 verses. He is speaking in the first person, verbally pointing a finger at those who have failed him. Scholar Ellen Frankel notes that Moses is stating “What has happened to this people that I led out of slavery? What has happened to our shared resolve? What has happened to me, who was to serve as God’s emissary and representative? Why have the people doomed me through their lack of faith, their ingratitude, their waywardness.”
For Moses knows that he cannot enter Canaan becomes he has failed in his leadership with past generations of Israelites, who also cannot enter the Promised Land.
And what is equally curious is his wanting to rewrite history. Moses retells the story of the 12 scouts. In the original version in the book of Numbers, they were told by God to enter Canaan secretly to spy on the Amorites, a giant of a people who controlled the land, to see if they could be defeated. The scouts come back with a sour appraisal that the Amorites cannot be vanquished. But God intervenes, telling the Jews of the desert that even with fewer numbers, they can defeat thine enemy.
But in Moses’s farewell address, the story has changed. The scouts are sent by the people, not by God this time, and come back with a positive report. But Moses says that the Israelites do not believe them and shrink from fighting the mighty Amorites. God punishes those who lose faith by not letting them into Canaan. The criticism moves from the scouts to Moses’s people themselves. Moses says “You refused to go up and flouted the command of the Eternal your God.”
Why would Moses rewrite history? Academics have spent thousands of years arguing that point. But the main idea is that Moses wants to rebuke, not praise. Many scholars write that he did this out of love, so that the next generation would understand the sins of the fathers and maintain their faith. Rabbi Bradley Artson writes that we rely on those around us, family and friends, to act as our early warning system, pointing out moral failure and ethical obtuseness before it is too late to improve. But when they do, we must be able to really listen.
It is no wonder that the Midrash notes that the sound of this parshat, Devarim, is similar to the word D’vorim, which means bees. Rabbis note that Moses’ admonitions are like the sting of bees – they hurt the person being stung but hurt the bee more, causing it to die. Moses dies at the end of Deuteronomy after his criticisms – spoken out of love – take the life out of him.
But others question whether constructive criticism from Moses was really needed. Among the ancients, Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah wrote that “the object of rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error.”
In other words, do we turn away from criticism or really listen to it. It depends on the person, their temperament, their openness. And it also depends on the person providing the criticism. Moses would fit the category of one whom the people would listen to.
Just like this portion of Deuteronomy – beginning Moses’ farewell address – is quite contentious, constructive criticism as a learning tool is also widely debated. You can look to Aristotle for positive affirmation, as he wrote “Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing." It is better to listen and act than sit idly and ignore, he says.
But the status of the giver of that criticism helps decide whether to listen or not. I love this anonymous saying: "Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you'll be a mile away and have his shoes."
This week, we read the Third Haftorah of Admonition, which recounts the prophecies of Isaiah, who censures all levels of society for their infidelity and the betrayal of loyalty to God. In flowing poetry, Isaiah writes that “Why do you seek further beatings? That you continue to offend! Every head is ailing, and every heart is sick. From head to foot, no spot is sound: All bruises, and welts and festering sores.”
But even Isaiah, in his prelude to Tisha Ba’av’s lamentations, ends the passage positively, telling the people that they again shall be repentant and saved from judgment, restoring Zion to the City of Righteousness, Faithful City.”
It is a hope that by sounding the alarm bells, the people will listen. We live in an age of pandemic where we are altered daily to the spread of COVID-19 and its wrath. But by sounding the alarm, we may get people to listen to the need to wear masks, to social distance, to do the right things to counter the further spread of this leviathan. Are we listening?