The Right Criticism, The Wrong Impulse —CHUKKAT, Numbers 19:1 – 22:1


“Why did God not let Moses enter the Promised Land?”

“Why did God not let Moses enter the Promised Land?”
The reason given for this punishment is that Moses struck a rock in order to get water out of it, instead of speaking to it (Numbers 20:12).
Truly, Moses was justified in his anger at the people, who constantly complained about hardships. However, the demands of leadership are great. A leader may be justifiably angry but he or she has to find a way to lead without letting that anger get out of control.
Moses yelled at the people, “Listen, you rebels, shall we [Moses and Aaron] get water for you out of this rock?” First, Moses erred by calling the people rebels. He showed what he thought of them at that moment. Secondly, he attributed the power to get water from the rock to human agency. This attribution to human agency has been considered by commentators as overstepping the boundaries. Human beings have to recognize limits; Moses implied that the power to get water from the rock was in his hands, not God’s.
The Israelites deserved some criticism, but Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdichev said there are two ways to criticize: “One makes use of kind, understanding words, uplifting others by reminding them that they are created in God’s image and that their good deeds bring God much pleasure. When criticism is then given, it does not tear a person down but strengthens the will of the person to accept and fulfill the commandments of the Torah.” Levi Isaac says that the second kind of criticism “is harsh. It demeans people, makes them feel bad about themselves, and means to shame them into fulfilling the commandments of Torah.” Much psychological wisdom resides in these words.
Persons in authority should follow Levi Isaac’s approach for offering criticism. If there is a problem to be addressed, first the person should find the positive things to praise that builds up the other person. Then when criticism is offered, it can be more easily accepted. The criticism can be heard — and constructive behavior to correct the problem can be implemented — because the person who is criticized and needs to make a change can do so in an environment where she knows her positive qualities are recognized.
In this biblical narrative, Moses failed in leadership in the way he offered criticism. He was harsh and demeaning without recognizing any positive qualities. Here is one reason for his punishment of not reaching the Promised Land.
Secondly, Moses overstepped his bounds. People have to recognize limits. People can not assume the role of God. Here, too, Moses failed in his leadership. And this fit into a pattern. As a young man, Moses impulsively slew the Egyptian taskmaster. On impulse, he broke the first set of commandments; and now, on impulse he struck the rock instead of ordering it to yield water. This series of actions demonstrated a pattern: At times, Moses could fly off the handle. This is a serious condition because civilization depends on impulse control and on having the humility to recognize limits. Impulse control is critical in being able to abide by moral rules. Therefore, Moses was punished by not being able to reach the Promised Land.
Two important lessons come from this portion. First is the way we criticize others. We have to to find the good in others and praise it, and then offer constructive criticism that will not tear down the other person. Second is to control our impulses. Leadership is not a position; it is a way of acting. These two lessons impart essential characteristics of acting as a leader. 
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at [email protected]