“And it was in the fortieth year, in the twelfth month, on the first day of the month, when Moshe spoke to Bnei Yisrael according to everything Hashem said to them.” – Devarim 1:3
When Moshe Rabbeinu was near the end of his life, he gathered Klal Yisrael together to give them rebuke for the sins they committed in the forty years of wandering in the desert.
Rashi is bothered by why he waited. Why didn’t he rebuke them years earlier when the events first took place? Rashi answers 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 Eisav.” 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.
This Rashi is difficult to understand. Why would Yaakov be afraid that if he criticized Reuven it would cause him to leave and cling to Esav? It is difficult to imagine a relationship of love, mutual respect, and dedication that was greater than the one Yaakov and his oldest son Reuven shared. Aside from the natural sense of attachment of a son to his father, Reuven accepted his father as his teacher, mentor, and spiritual guide. Surely that should have allowed Reuven to know his father’s rebuke was only for his good.
Further, whenever Yaakov spoke to his son, it was with love and sensitivity. If a situation arose where Yaakov felt his son erred, a mature person like Reuven would willingly accept words of guidance and correct his ways. Why should Yaakov have been afraid?
The Damage of Criticism
The answer is based on the effect criticism has upon a person. The Orchas Tzadikim (Shaar 12) explains that when you verbally attack me, it is a given that I will retaliate. It isn’t much different than if you were physically assaulting me. I perceive your words as an attack against the essence of me, and it is almost within the category of self-defense for me to strike back at you. Every fiber of my being screams out to defend myself against the onslaught of your words.
Criticism is but one step below a verbal attack. It isn’t quite as pointed, not quite as aggressive – but not that far off. When you criticize me, I am under attack. The essence of me, who I am, and what I stand for is being assaulted. You may not have intended it that way, but that is what I feel. There is a powerful sense of disapproval and condemnation that comes across, and I feel under attack.
This seems to be why Yaakov was so afraid to criticize Reuven. Despite the fact that Yaakov would only have intended it for his son’s good, and despite the fact that Reuven was looking for direction from his loving father, Yaakov was afraid that rebuking Reuven would force them apart, perhaps even drive Reuven away.
This is a powerful illustration of the damage caused by rebuke. Even in a relationship based on mutual love and respect, criticism undoes the bond and causes a separation. Here we see it with a mature man whose priorities were straight, a man who lived his whole life for growth and recognized his father as the spiritual guide of the generation. Yet words of rebuke could have had the effect of separating and causing even such a man to go off the path.