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Near the end of his life, Moshe Rabbeinu gathered klal Yisrael together to rebuke them for the sins they committed in the 40 years of wandering in the desert. The question is, why didn’t Moshe rebuke them years earlier when the events first took place? Rashi explains that Moshe learned from Yaakov Avinu. Yaakov didn’t admonish his son Reuven until he was close to death: “If you are wondering why I didn’t admonish you all of these years,” Yaakov told Reuven, “it’s because I was afraid that if I did you would leave me and cling to my brother Esav.” Therefore, Yaakov waited until he was about to die and only then did he chastise Reuven. Moshe learned from Yaakov, so he too didn’t give rebuke to the Jewish nation until he was about to die.

Let’s examine Rashi closely: Rashi is seemingly stating two drawbacks that would have occurred had Yaakov rebuked Reuven prematurely: 1) Reuven would have abandoned his relationship with his father Yaakov; 2) Reuven would develop a new relationship with Esav.

This Rashi is as bewildering as it gets. How is it plausible to think that had Yaakov rebuked him prematurely, Reuven would’ve been so crushed that he would have thrown away his relationship with his father who was not just his father but one of our Avot!? Furthermore, Reuven was one of the Shevatim, an exceptionally holy person whose greatness can’t adequately be described, so how is it possible that from a few words of rebuke Reuven would potentially not only sever his relationship with Yaakov, but would develop a new camaraderie and bond with such a wicked and evil person like Esav? This Rashi begs for some serious explanation…

To start, we need to understand the psychology of rebuke and criticism. Meaning to say, we need to understand what criticism is, what impression it gives off, the difficulty of accepting criticism, and how it makes the recipient feel about themselves. We’d like to think that giving criticism, even if constructive, is a very helpful and kind gesture on our part. After all, we are helping another person improve, aren’t we? The reality is, however, that most people don’t know how to take criticism. When one gets criticized for something they did wrong, he or she doesn’t interpret that as a mistake in deed, but rather as a mistake in self. The reason why a person feels internally crushed by a statement of rebuke or criticism is because they translate the rebuke to mean that they themselves are wrong and bad, not just that what they did is wrong and bad. Criticism is so piercing because it hits a person right in their ego. You might have the best of intentions in your respectful rebuke, but the reality is that the recipient will easily feel like their entire essence is evil, not just what they did. You don’t like people who call you evil, and thus you might disassociate from them and discard that relationship. But then there’s the next step. If this recipient feels like they are bad, that might lead them to not only begin to do bad things, but they might start to hang out with the wrong people. Naturally, people want to associate with people of their kind, and thus even a good person may end up joining evil because he feels like he is evil.

If Reuven was given criticism prematurely, perhaps he wouldn’t have been able to differentiate the wrong act versus himself. He may have interpreted his father’s words to mean that he is bad, rather than what he did is bad. If that were to happen, Reuven might have joined Esav—the company of utter evil—because Reuven may have felt that he himself is evil. Criticism is so powerful that even someone like Reuven may have been hurt so much to the point that he would want out from his relationship with Yaakov, even though it was his father and one of our Avot. But it’s not just Reuven. Rashi is saying that Moshe learned from Yaakov in the way to relate to the entire Jewish nation. Seemingly, the effects of criticism given inappropriately applies not just to Reuven, but also to every single Jew Moshe was addressing.

The students of R’ Henoch Leibowitz used to ask him to give them mussar—to chastise them. He’d refuse and respond that nowadays “we’re like tissue paper” (i.e., we’re weak and can’t tolerate it). R’ Bentzion Shafier has three rules for giving criticism: 1) Don’t do it. 2) Don’t do it. 3) Don’t do it! The fact of the matter is, pointing out a flaw in someone in any kind of way—whether it’s something they did, something they said, something they wore, or even things that weren’t a product of their own decision making—can cause a tremendous blow to their self-esteem. So much so that it can lead them to think they are bad and end up eventually leading a self-fulfilled prophecy of acting incorrectly and associating with negative influences. Criticism poses a danger to the essence of a human being as well as his or her spiritual development.

By Binyamin Benji


Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He currently learns in Lakewood, and is the author of the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus’ weekly Torah Talk. He can be reached at
[email protected].

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