Constructive Criticism

PARASHAT PINCHAS: Why was Moshe told to warn Yehoshua in front of the people about their behavior?

By Rav David Silverberg

We read in Parashat Pinchas of the ceremony God commanded Moshe to conduct for the purpose of formally naming his disciple, Yehoshua, as his successor to the position of leader of Benei Yisrael.  God told Moshe to have Yehoshua stand before “the entire congregation,” and to “command him in their presence” (27:19).  Rashi, based on the Sifrei, offers a surprising explanation of this instruction: “Command him over Israel: ‘You should know that they are burdensome, they are disobedient.’”  Moshe was to warn Yehoshua at this event of the difficulties involved in leading Benei Yisrael, so that he would accept the position knowing full well what it entailed.

Already the Ramban questioned this explanation by wondering how God could have Moshe say such a thing to Yehoshua in the presence of the entire nation.  While we readily understand the importance of Yehoshua recognizing the full extent of the hardships and frustrations he could expect serving as the nation’s teacher and leader, it seems difficult to imagine God having Moshe issue this warning in the nation’s presence.  As the Ramban writes, “This matter is more appropriate to be spoken among themselves in private, for in their [the nation’s presence] – this would cause them [further] rejection.”  Warning Yehoshua of Benei Yisrael’s disobedience and pettiness in their presence would all but guarantee further disobedience and pettiness.

To explain Rashi’s comments, Rav Moshe Rubenstein (Parperet Moshe) suggests that they be understood in light of his remarks several verses later (21), where the word “eida” (“congregation”) appears again.  Based on the Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (16a), Rashi interprets the word “eida” in that verse as referring specifically to the Sanhedrin, and not to the entire nation.  Conceivably, then, Rashi also understood the command to Moshe to bring Yehoshua “before the entire congregation” as referring not to all Benei Yisrael, but rather to the Sanhedrin.  As such, Moshe was not, in fact, warning Yehoshua about the nation’s shortcomings in their presence.

Regardless of whether we accept this creative explanation, or whether we find some other approach to defend Rashi’s comments, we would be well-advised to heed the Ramban’s comment that offensively deriding people to their faces “would cause them further rejection.”  Our instincts may at times drive us to criticize and condemn people for their deficiencies directly, explicitly, sharply and disdainfully, but more often than not, this will have the precise opposite of the desired effect.  Rather than result in their improvement, it will lead to resentment which will in turn yield further deterioration and decline.  The Ramban’s discomfort with Rashi’s comments remind us that people – whether children or adults – do not decide to improve themselves in response to insults and name-calling, and thus when constructive criticism is warranted, it must be communicated in a dignified and respectful way.

Originally appears on VBM

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