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The Best Kind of Criticism

by Yossi Katz

Have you recently been criticized or rebuked? Did you find those words to be helpful? Did they initiate any positive change in your behavior? 

For most people, criticism makes them feel hurt and put down. And when we rebuke others, we often don’t see any change and, even more likely, a spiteful reaction.

Although there is a great mitzvah to rebuke (see Leviticus 19:17), most people are not capable of fulfilling this mitzvah properly. Even Rabbi Akiva, who lived in a generation of tremendous Torah scholarship, said, “I would be astounded if there is anyone capable of rebuking in this generation” (Erkhin 16b). In this week’s parashah, Moses delivers words of rebuke to the Jewish people in the subtlest of ways, by naming the places where they sinned but not the sins themselves (see Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:1). We see from this the tremendous sensitivity required before reproaching another Jew.

Rebbe Nachman explains why it’s so important to know how to rebuke properly. He teaches that our souls receive their sustenance from “scent,” as we find regarding Adam, “and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life” (Genesis 2:7; Likutey Moharan II, 8).

Imagine that something foul-smelling is lying around. As long as it lies undisturbed, its odor is minimal. But if the item is picked up and carried about, its smell grows far worse. The same is true of ourselves. Our shortcomings omit “foul odors,” but as long as these imperfections are left at bay, their bad influence has a minimal effect on our souls. However, if they’re stirred up through incorrect criticism, these shortcomings begin to release a terrible odor which, in effect, cuts off our souls from their spiritual lifeline. Imagine how much damage can be done!

The professors in the area of rebuke are our great tzaddikim. They are the only ones capable of looking into our souls and extracting our essential pure and pleasant fragrance. Rather than causing spiritual disconnect, they plug us back into the Source. Rebbe Nachman teaches us the way to emulate their work and properly fulfill the Torah’s commandment. 

When we look at ourselves and others, we usually notice shortcomings and imperfections. While these observations may be true, our highlighting them only exacerbates those issues. If, instead, we look beyond them toward the inherent goodness that we and others possess, we are able to “release” the soul’s pure and pleasant fragrance. True, the bad is still there, but it’s only external. True rebuke extracts the soul’s true goodness, letting the foul-smelling parts fall away automatically.

This is why Moses mentioned only the names of the various encampments and not the sins that were done there. At each juncture, the Jewish people faced enormously difficult challenges. The same way that the desert is a place of extreme danger to the body, it is also a spiritual wasteland to the soul. We fell short not because we were evil and rebellious, but because of the negative spiritual environment. It took someone of Moses’ caliber to recognize this and reconnect us to God by reminding us of our true nature.

Only the way of the tzaddikim can lead us from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Holy Land. May we all follow their lead by revealing the true greatness of each and every Jew. Amen!

Based on Likutey Halakhot, Tzitzit 5:7; ibid. Orlah 4:17

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