Friday, July 27, 2012

The Good-bye Party

Parshas Devarim
The desert tour is just about over. After 40 hot, sweaty years of travel, Moshe is wrapping things up in preparation for his retirement. It's strange, though, that instead of ending these trips the usual way, with an inspiring, slightly off-tune kumzitz,  and with everyone posing cheesy smiles for 500 cameras and swapping email addresses, Moshe had another method of saying goodbye. He got up and started giving over 40 years of pent up criticism to the Jewish people. During all these years he just smiled casually at their shortcomings and mistakes, and now, at the end of it all, he opens up the bottle and let's it all out. He spoke to them about Korach's rebellion, about the sin of the Golden Calf, and other not good stuff. Doesn't sound like a very inspiring ending for a rather inspiring journey.

Actually, this was ingenious. Not only that, but it's such a powerful lesson learned from a true leader.

Moshe purposely saved it for now. Because criticism is all nice and dandy, but it has to be given under certain conditions, and timed precisely, in order for the message to be constructive, and not destructive. If the receiving party is left angry, hurt, or defensive- it's better not to bring it up altogether, but if we really wanna help them, we have to know the how and when. Moshe, being completely in touch with his people, clearly realized that the moment was now, and not sooner (or later for that matter, since it would've been a bit freaky to hear it from him  after his death).

The Rambam writes that there are 3 steps to delivering proper criticism:
1: It must be done in privacy and never ever in public. Sometimes we tend to purposely admonish others publicly, just to glorify our own power. Like when an employer feels compelled to show his employees who's boss around here by yelling at a worker in front of everyone. Thumbs down.
2: While rebuking, we must stress the positive and not the negative.
There's a possuk in mishlei that states: Al tochach letz, pen yisnaecha, hochach l'chochom v'yeehavcha. Don't give mussar to a cynical person (you know who that is- every shul has one of those) because he'll just hate you, but give mussar to a wise person and he'll love you.This seems to be pretty logical. A cynical person devalues everything. He lives life in a bowl of cherries and spits the pits out on anyone passing by. Therefore, there's a low probability of him taking your words to heart and trying to improve himself. A wise man, however, wants to improve, and therefore welcomes criticism. Sort of like someone who's beauty conscious and wants to look their best. She'll buy the most magnifying mirror with the sharpest lighting in order to find every blackhead, whitehead and blemish, so she can get rid of them and improve her complexion.

The shlah hakadosh derives a fascinating insight from this possuk in mishlei quoted above.He says to shift the commas around and put emphasis on different words. Listen to this carefully.
Al tochach, letz.- don't criticize someone by calling him a letz- don't tell someone
"You idiot!" 
"you're so stupid"
 "what's wrong with you?!?"
Or any other lovely negative expression- cuz it aint gonna work- pen yisnaecha- he's just gonna hate you.
But, hochach l'chochom- tell him he's achochom  - tell him how smart he is, how good he is, or any other creative positive expression  - v'yeehavecha- and he'll love you. This is the only way to receive the results you're hoping for.
3: You must have the persons' best interest in mind. There may not be any ulterior motives here. No anger, no personal benefit... nothing other than the persons' best interest.

Moshe realized, based on their situation, that now, at the end of the trip, and right before his death was the best time for the mussar. He knew they would listen intently since these were his dying words. He knew they wouldn't have to face him in the future, so there was no embarrassment. He knew that if there any positive changes, they wouldn't be changing for him, since he wouldn't see it anyway, but for themselves. For these reasons, and others, Moshe thought the situation through and timed his criticism perfectly.

Many times throughout our lives we find ourselves in a position to give  criticism to another person. Let's make sure it'll always be constructive and not destructive. 

Just as a side point, on the other end of the spectrum, we have the issue of how to receive criticism. Many of us take a lesson from the weather- we don't pay any attention to criticism. Mussar is a hard thing to accept- it's hard on our egos, it's hard on our emotions... but if we can't acknowledge and accept our shortcomings and  mistakes, there's  zero chance of improvement and growth.  Let's hope people will rebuke us in the correct manner, but whether they do or don't, we have a responsibility to take it to heart- whether taking it with a grain of salt, or removing from it a grain of salt. It's for our benefit.

Have a great shabbos!