The Parasha of Devarim (in Hebrew, “words”) begins with the heading “These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel”. As the Rabbis explained, this seemingly innocent heading alludes to the fact that in his last days, Moses did more than just recount what had happened to the People of Israel in the desert or tell them how they should act in the future. Moses “had words with them”, as it were. He rebuked them. To our modern ears, the word rebuke is so harsh we hardly use it. We prefer criticism, or even better – constructive criticism. Is this because we’ve become too touchy-feely? Have our egos just become too big to take it?
A fascinating midrash on this week’s Parasha seems to indicate that the people of Israel could dish out criticism and also take it, but that by the time the Rabbis came around, it had become a rare thing:
“[These are the words Moses spoke]… to all of Israel” – this teaches us that they were all capable of rebuke and that they were all able to take being rebuked. Rabbi Tarfon said, [I swear] by the sacrificial cult that no one in this generation can rebuke [properly]. Rabbi Elazar son of Azariya said: [I swear] by the sacrificial cult that no one in this generation can [properly] take being rebuked. Rabbi Akiva said: [I swear] by the sacrificial cult that no one in this generation knows how to rebuke [properly]. Rabbi Yohana son of Nuri said: May the heavens and the earth testify that Rabbi Akiva was put to shame on my account more than five times before Rabbi Gamliel at Yavne – for I would complain to Rabban Gamliel and he would rebuke him. And even so I knew he would love me more for each and every time – in accordance with what it says: Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee; reprove a wise man, and he will love thee (Proverbs 9:8)
– Midrash Sifri Devarim