Elan Javanfard, L.M.F.T.
In Parashat Devarim, we find Moshe delivering his final address to Bnei Yisrael before they enter Eretz Yisrael. As Moshe is entering the final days of his life, he begins to provide rebuke and criticism for the people. Using the lens of this Parasha, we can glean valuable insights into the psychological concept of providing constructive criticism.
Sefer Devarim begins with the passuk: “These are the words that Moshe addressed to Bnei Yisrael before on the other side of the Jordan (Devarim 1:1).” Rashi and the Sifrei Devarim comment that, “These are the words” refers to the rebuke and reproof that Moshe waited to provide to the people until they were all gathered. They further comment that Moshe only alluded to the sins of the people by listing the locations rather than the details. Several passukim later, Rashi adds the reason why Moshe waited until his final days to offer constructive criticism, mainly to provide Bnei Yisrael time to reflect on their actions and not feel ashamed when they saw him.
Moshe masterfully balances truth and sensitivity when providing constructive feedback. He acknowledges the failures of the people, not to shame or discourage them, but to help them grow. Constructive criticism requires us to choose our words carefully, considering the impact they will have on the recipient. It is essential to convey our concerns with understanding, ensuring our intentions are rooted in genuine care. As author Frank A. Clark wrote, "Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots."
By waiting until his final days to deliver a rebuke, Moshe encourages Bnei Yisrael to reflect on their past mistakes and learn from them. Constructive criticism serves as a catalyst for personal growth and self-improvement. Similarly, when providing constructive feedback, we can empower others to take accountability for their actions and actively seek ways to enhance their abilities and character.
Moshe directs his critique towards the actions and decisions of Bnei Yisrael rather than attacking their character, by only alluding to their sins rather than sharing the details. He separates the behavior from the individual, emphasizing the need for improvement without undermining their self-worth. Constructive criticism should always focus on specific actions or behaviors, avoiding personal attacks that could cause unnecessary pain or defensiveness.
Lastly, Moshe not only highlighted their shortcomings but also provided guidance and solutions for Bnei Yisrael. Throughout Sefer Devarim, Moshe reviews laws and commandments, offering them a clear path toward improvement. Constructive criticism should not be solely about pointing out flaws but should also include suggestions and support. If you don’t have anything important to say, don't say anything at all. But if you do, make sure it's constructive.
Moshe provides us with a wonderful roadmap for parents, spouses, and friends alike to follow when offering feedback:
- Reflect on the Mistake: Before providing criticism, take a moment to reflect on the behavior that needs addressing. Consider the impact it had and why it is important to provide feedback. This reflection helps ensure that your criticism comes from a place of genuine concern and a desire to help the person improve.
- Separate the Behavior from the Individual: When offering criticism, focus on the specific behavior or action that needs improvement rather than attacking the person's character. This approach reduces defensiveness and increases receptiveness to feedback.
- Offer Guidance and Solutions: Alongside pointing out the behavior, communicate what could have been done differently by suggesting alternative approaches or strategies. This helps the person understand how to rectify the situation and gives them a roadmap for future improvement.
As summarized in Mishlei, Proverbs, 9:8-9:9, “Reprove a wise man, and he will love you, instruct a wise man, and he will grow wiser.” Parshat Devarim teaches us the significance of constructive criticism by embracing the principles demonstrated by Moshe. Let us remember that criticism, when employed with care, creates an environment of growth and collaboration. May we strive to walk the path of Moshe by learning to provide feedback that is supportive, actionable, and encourages positive change.
Elan Javanfard, M.A., L.M.F.T. is a Consulting Psychotherapist focused on behavioral health redesign, a Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University, & a lecturer related to Mindfulness, Evidence Based Practices, and Suicide Prevention. Elan is the author of Psycho-Spiritual Insights: Exploring Parasha & Psychology, weekly blog. He lives in Los Angeles Pico Robertson community with his wife and two children and can be reached at Elan.Javanfard@gmail.com.