Devarim 5780: Everyone’s a Critic by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig
GOOD MORNING! In this week’s edition we are going to discuss a very complicated subject – that of criticism. Essentially, in order to become better people we must all learn to accept constructive criticism. But this is a difficult concept for many of us to embrace. Most people are very good at giving others criticism, but utterly fail at properly accepting it themselves. What’s the difference between constructive criticism and ordinary criticism? Criticizing someone makes them very angry, while giving them constructive criticism makes them only a little angry.
I am reminded of a story an author who ran into a local book critic. The critic asked him, “Would you like me to give you my opinion of your latest book?” “Sure!” replied the author. “It’s worthless!” said the critic. “I know, but tell it to me anyway.”
I cannot write on this subject without mentioning another extraordinary character trait that our beloved teacher Rabbi Kalman Packouz, of blessed memory, exemplified. As many of you know, for close to 27 years I had the unique privilege of spending one day a week having breakfast with him where we would talk and share our lives. On many occasions he would look at me and ask, “Please, tell me what I can do to become a better person. What do you think I should work on?”
In retrospect, I am ashamed that I cannot recall ever asking him the same question. He had such a love for all of humanity, and I felt it. I should have known that whatever he would have told me would be coming from a person that loves me and only wants to see me continue to grow as a person. What an incredible missed opportunity! Yet another reason to mourn his passing.
This week we begin reading from the book of “Devarim – Deuteronomy” (Deuteronomy is derived from the Greek word for repetition, and likewise in the language of our sages the book is often referred to as “Mishneh Torah,” which also essentially means review of the Torah). The eponymously named Torah portion that is read this week refers to the “devarim – words” that Moses shared with the Jewish people in the final days of his life.
This portion is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. The book of Deuteronomy retells the final days of Moses and his conversations and final instructions to the Jewish people. Our sages explain that the reason that this portion is read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av is that it contains an extended criticism of the behavior of the Jewish people during their forty years in the desert.
In Judaism, time isn’t viewed merely as something that passes, something that is only marked on the calendar. Rather, time has been imbued with a power all its own. For example, Shabbat isn’t merely the end of the week and a time to rest. Shabbat was created with an innate holiness and sanctity, one that we dare not violate. This is a special time and we are given the opportunity to achieve things that are unique to this day such as a spiritual communion with the Almighty, a time to reflect on who we are, and a special time to bond with family and friends.
It is therefore no coincidence that the Hebrew word to “invite” and the word for “time” share the same root, “zman – זמן” because they both represent an opportunity. There are more opportune times and less opportune times. Consequently, different times have different predilections; some for happiness and, unfortunately, some for sadness.
As we discussed a few weeks ago, Tisha B’Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. Tisha B’Av – the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av – culminates the time period of foreboding, one which our sages inform us has been a portent for evil and terrible events in the history of the Jewish people. Over the last 3,500 years many horrific things happened on the ninth of Av – including the majority of the most tragic events in Jewish history. Here is the list that Rabbi Packouz compiled and would print with every Tisha B’Av edition of the Shabbat Shalom Weekly:
Throughout history, on the 9th of Av, many tragedies befell the Jewish people, including:
- The incident of the spies slandering the land of Israel with the subsequent decree to wander the desert for 40 years.
- The destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem by Nevuchadnetzar, King of Babylon in 423 BCE.
- The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.
- The fall of Betar and the end of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans 65 years later, 135 CE.
- Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed, and many Jewish communities obliterated.
- The Jews of England were expelled in 1290.
- The Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492.
- World War I broke out on Tisha B’Av in 1914 when Russia declared war on Germany. German resentment of the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for World War II and the Holocaust. In fact, many believe it was merely the continuation of World War I. Thus, the Holocaust also has it’s roots in Tisha B’Av.
- On Tisha B’Av, deportation began of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto.
This year, Tisha B’Av begins on Wednesday night, July 29th. Tish B’Av is a fast day (like Yom Kippur, from sunset one evening until the stars come out the next evening) and culminates a three week mourning period by the Jewish people. On this day, one is forbidden to eat or drink, bathe, use moisturizing creams or oils, wear leather shoes, or have marital relations. The idea is to minimize pleasure and to let the body feel the distress the soul should feel over these tragedies. Like all fast days, the object is introspection, making a spiritual accounting and correcting our ways – what in Hebrew is called teshuva – returning to the path of good and righteousness, to the ways of the Torah.
The primary mourning on Tisha B’Av is centered on the destruction of the two temples, which were both accompanied by the utter annihilation and pillaging of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. According to the Talmud (Yoma 9b), the reason for the destruction of the second temple was because of “sinat chinam – baseless hatred.” In other words, Jews had an antipathy toward one another and this caused us to lose the icon of peace and unity that was the Holy Temple.
Yet, the Talmud seems to have a contradiction. In tractate Shabbos (119b) the Talmud states that the reason for the destruction was because people failed to criticize one another. This seems to contradict the other teaching that states that the destruction stemmed from baseless hatred. Furthermore, if baseless hatred was rampant in the city of Jerusalem then harsh criticism of fellow Jews couldn’t be far behind. What does the Talmud mean when it says that people didn’t criticize one another?
Did you know that there is actually a mitzvah in the Torah to criticize a fellow Jew? (see Leviticus 19:17) Sadly, most of us have no idea what this really means and when to apply it. As an example: Most of us feel it is our sacred obligation to (loudly) shush the person in synagogue who is talking too loudly or is disruptive in some way. However, this does not fall under the obligation of criticizing a fellow Jew.
Maimonides (Deyos 6:7) very clearly explains that the main driving force of criticism of another has to be your love of them and your desire that they don’t hurt themselves.
Unfortunately, most of us only criticize behavior of others (including family members) that bother us, not the behavior that is harmful to them. Most of us prefer to blithely ignore the behaviors of our friends that we see are clearly detrimental to them. Unless, of course, they do or say something that is disruptive to our own lives. At that point we spring into action. But until then we would rather turn a blind eye to their shortcomings and “leave well enough alone.”
Meaning, we effectively only criticize others when their behavior is about us and not when their behavior is about them. (We should carefully examine what that says about our “friendship.”) That’s what the Talmud means by Jerusalem was destroyed because we didn’t criticize one another. This was a direct result of the baseless hatred. Because of the baseless hatred we had for one another, we didn’t care about each other and thus didn’t make any attempt to prevent others from harming themselves.
We should all consider how we can use this message to improve the lives of others, and may we merit seeing the rebuilding of the Holy Temple speedily in our days. Amen.