Parashat Devarim — The Art of Giving and Receiving Rebukes

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered August 13, 2016 by Bonnie G. Lindauer

Deuteronomy, also called Seifer D’varim, the Book of Words, combines a repetition of earlier sections of Exodus and Numbers with new material relating to laws for living in their permanent home. Parashat Devarim is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the fast day on which we read the Book of Lamentations, lamenting the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem and other tragic events in Jewish history. There is even a verse in today’s complete parashah, Deut 1:12, that is traditionally chanted to the plaintive melody for the Book of Lamentations. This verse begins with the Hebrew word Eikhah, variously translated as Alas! or How, as in How on earth! and continues with Moses saying “how can I bear unaided the trouble of you and the burden, and the bickering!”

Not only is Moses bemoaning the burden he’s carried, but we notice that Moses does all the speaking. The entire book is composed of 5 discourses of Moses’ words to the newer generation of Israelites.  Most striking is the change in voice.  We find mostly the first person:  “I said to you.  You replied to me: I sent messengers. I pleaded with God…etc.”  Gone is the passive voice of the narrator in previous books of the Torah.

Deuteronomy is Moses’s story to tell.  As other commentators have remarked, Moses’s voice and words in Deut. make it clear that he is the first of the great prophets. Quoting a rabbi we first met at Limmud two years ago, Rabbi David Kasher, “he has become a man of words because he now knows how to speak the language of Torah. He knows what to say, how to communicate ideas. By serving as the mouthpiece of God, and speaking out the words of the Torah so many times, Moses has learned what it means to speak with power and conviction. The Torah has been inside him, and it has changed him.”  And citing another person, the late Rabbi Pinchas Peli of Ben-Gurion University, ““Moses realizes that only a leader who had risked his own life and brought much good to his people has the right to rebuke them for their shortcomings. He must have wanted to say these “words” earlier, but he waited for the right moment.”

I’ve titled my drash “The Art of Giving and Receiving Rebukes” because the speech of the mature Moses offers a good model for how to give criticism/rebukes. No one likes to be criticized or be taken to task for shortcomings, but we also know that it’s important for ones growth and development to get constructive criticism from those we respect and who respect and care about us.  Like you, I obviously have been the recipient of criticism plenty of times over the years, but there are two instances I can recall so vividly from my past: one graduate school and one in my early career.  I think the reason I still remember the emotional context and even the words is because in both cases I hoped that the persons criticizing me respected and cared for me the way I did for them.

What can we learn from the mature Moses about offering criticism?  Why did he speak so harshly to the Israelites on the border of the Promised Land?  My first thought was he was tired and frustrated with their constant complaints, maybe even a bit angry that he wouldn’t be joining them. I also think that because he cared for them, he was worried about how they would be living their lives in the Promised Land, since he would no longer be around to guide them.

A footnote in Etz Chaim, which credits Midrash,  gives us a clue about another aspect of his speech.  The Midrash points out that the first verse in Deuteronomy says “These are the words— d’varim —that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…”  The Midrash finds a  similarity between the sound of the Hebrew noun d’varim (words) and d’vorim (bees).  The Midrash comments that Moses’ criticisms and rebukes of the people are like the stings of a bee.  A bee’s sting hurts the person stung but it hurts the bee more, causing its death.  This midrash suggests that Moses dies at the end of Deuteronomy because criticizing Israel has taken so much out of him.  It also suggests that “we should judge the validity of criticism not only by its factual accuracy but by how much it pains the critic to say it.  The harsh criticisms of Moses are spoken with love.” 

Rabbi Bradley Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, offers additional points about giving criticism. He states: “Pointing out someone’s shortcomings should not be a chance for insults or a sense of superiority.  It should not become an opportunity to humiliate or gloat.  Instead, a rebuke, if properly intended and given, becomes an act of affirmation and love, an affirmation that the person is worth the effort in the first place, and a faith that he or she remains capable of improvement. Offered with love and a sense of humility, a rebuke is a gift and a challenge.” Notice his phrase “a rebuke, if properly intended and given,” again it is the intention that the critic has — it must be an intention to constructively help the person being rebuked because the critic cares about the person and believe that he/she is worthy and capable of improvement. 

From these commentators we learn four  important aspects of how to offer criticism/rebukes:  1.  Timing is everything….Moses waited until the time was right.  We should avoid offering criticism to someone in a time of weakness, anger or suffering, for example.  2.  In order to be taken seriously, the critic should respect and care about the person he/she is criticizing;  3. The rebuker’s intention should be to offer criticism in a humble, helpful way, never from a position of superiority or righteous judgment;  and 4. the person criticizing another should make it clear that he/she feels the person is worth the effort and capable of improvement. 

A certain person who will remain nameless and I have disagreed about offering criticism to someone that one doesn’t know that well or particularly care about.  My position has always been: if you aren’t involved in some positive way in that person’s life, why offer criticism? The chance of hurting, rather than helping, is too great.  As the Babylonian Talmud says: “Just as it is meritorious to offer reproof when it is known that it will be heeded, it is meritorious not to rebuke when it is known it will not be heeded”  Or as written in Proverbs 9:8:  “Reprove not a scorner lest he hate thee; reprove a wise man and he will-love thee.”

What about receiving rebukes?   Since our egos get involved, it may be harder to accept criticism then offer it. I don’t know about you but receiving criticism from those I admire or respect has always been more challenging for me to handle because I want the person to think well of me. However, if the criticism comes from someone I don’t think knows me that well or that I don’t respect, the words just roll off me. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said, “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.”  It seems that in Rabbi Eleazar’s time, he observed that people no longer accepted criticism as an act of love. Instead of listening openly to a description of how they had acted inappropriately and then working to modify their behavior to remove that flaw, the person receiving the rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error. 

QUESTION for the group:  In your experience what makes receiving criticism difficult?

When I looked for Biblical examples and wisdom about receiving criticism, nearly everything I found was from Proverbs.  One of the great themes in Proverbs is that those who embrace rebuke are wise, while those who despise reproof find themselves to be fools.

Here are just a few selected examples from Proverbs:  Proverbs 10:7  He is on the path of life who heeds instruction, but he who ignores reproof goes astray; Proverbs 29:1 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice and from Ecclesiastes 7:5:  it is better for a person to receive a rebuke from those who are wise than to listen to the song of fools.

There are also many positive statements from Proverbs about accepting criticism. “Whoever heeds reproof is honored” (Proverbs 13:18) “He who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Proverbs 15:32), To the one who embraces rebuke, God says, “I will pour out my spirit to you” (Proverbs 1:23).

In closing, I echo many others in stating  that Devarim — words — are powerful and as we learned from the mature Moses, words offered as criticism require the wisdom of a caring person who knows when and how to speak them.  And on the receiving end of criticism, a willingness to listen carefully, suspend knee-jerk reactions, and believe that the critic has your best interests at heart might go a long way to truly understanding and maybe even benefitting from the words spoken. 


Rabbi Bradley Artson.  “Rebukes and Responses.” My Jewish Learning

Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen. “Words of Admonition” My Jewish Learning

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