Giving a word of critique is not a simple matter at all. Before you give mussar, this is what you need to know.
Mussar certainly needs to be said; when something wrong is being done in the home, you have a responsibility to say something. Nonetheless there are quite a few things we can learn from Moshe Rabbeinu about the way to say mussar.
How to Give Mussar
Our parsha starts off with Moshe Rabbeinu giving mussar to Klal Yisrael. When we study our parsha, we note how sensitive he was about doing it the right way. Moshe Rabbeinu, who took Klal Yisrael out of Mitzrayim, led them in the midbar for 40 years, and was like a father to them, was so careful about how he gave them mussar. Certainly we too need to think about how to do so in the right way.
Hinting and Waiting
Rashi explains that the places listed by Moshe Rabbeinu in the beginning of the parsha were really hints to the aveiros of the dor hamidbar. These were big aveiros, like rebelling against Hashem and the חטא העגל; everyone knew about them. Still, Moshe Rabbeinu was careful that the Yidden shouldn’t feel ashamed and he didn’t mention them openly.
We also note how Moshe Rabbeinu was careful to give the Yidden mussar just before his death. Rashi says he learned this from Yaakov Avinu, who waited until just before he died to give Reuven mussar. He was afraid that Reuven would hear the mussar and run away. “I have an uncle (Eisav) who will accept me the way I am; I’ll just go to him,” he could have thought. So, Yaakov waited until the time it would be accepted.
Even Moshe Rabbeinu and Yaakov Avinu were worried about their mussar being taken the wrong way; doesn’t that tell us something about how careful we have to be?
The Right Circumstances
The pasuk also tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu waited until after the victories over Sichon and Og to give his mussar. Rashi explains that Moshe was worried the Yidden might reject the mussar. They might say, “We know why you’re telling us this. You can’t get us into Eretz Yisrael and you’re trying to find an excuse.” Now that he proved his prowess as a warrior, they could no longer give this argument.
They had already seen how he took them out of Mitzrayim, and led them miraculously for forty years in the desert. Hashem had spoken to him פה
פה אל, and stuck up for his honor again and again. As great as he was and after all the things he had done, there was still the concern that the people would take his mussar the wrong way.
You can be as big as Moshe Rabbeinu, as dedicated to the good of Klal Yisrael as Moshe Rabbeinu, and still your mussar can be taken the wrong way. This is something we need to learn. Nobody had more of a right to say mussar than Moshe Rabbeinu. He was so perfect, and Klal Yisrael knew that. Still he needed to ‘earn the right’ to say mussar.
The Splinter and the Beam
There are so many things to watch out for when giving someone mussar.
Be careful not to give mussar in a way that makes them defensive and think, “Who are you to give me mussar?” It’s very important that the person shouldn’t feel attacked. You need to be non- judgmental and absolve them of the blame, showing how you accept them and understand them. This way they’ll be able to accept what you’re saying. It’s so easy for mussar to be misinterpreted.
Another point; before you start giving mussar make sure you are not guilty of the same offense. Chazal tell us שבך מום לחברך תאמר אל; don’t criticize someone else about a problem you also have. This sounds so obvious, how can you tell someone about getting up on time if you yourself sleep late? But people do this all the time. They make all types of excuses for themselves, but when it comes to the other person they feel comfortable giving them mussar.
The Gemara says: If some people are told – מבין קורה טול עיניך, “Take out the splinter from between your eyes,” they respond עיניך מבין קיסם טול – “You take out the beam from between your eyes.” So this is really something to be careful about, even if you think you’re different and different rules should apply to you.
Chazal says, “Just like it is a mitzvah to give mussar that will be accepted, so too is it a mitzvah to refrain from saying something that won’t be accepted.” Part of the mitzvah of saying something that will be accepted, is refraining from saying it in a way that it will not be accepted. Don’t say, “If they won’t accept it, I just won’t say it.” Say it, it’s a mitzvah! But in the right way. Make sure that what you’re saying is something that can be heard.
If you can’t say it in a way that it will be heard right now, hold on to it. Both Yaakov Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu waited a very long time before saying their mussar. You have to be patient and wait for the time when your mussar will be received in the right way.
There’s a second type of patience in giving mussar which we learn from Noach (see Torah Lessons for the Home Parshas Noach). He spent 120 years building the teivah and reminding people to do teshuvah. He was very patient, repeating his message over and over for 120 years, waiting for people to listen. We need to give people a chance to change.
Chazal say that we learn from the pasuk תוכיח הוכח that you need to give someone mussar even 100 times. Does that mean that you have to be on top of him, forcing the mussar down his throat repetitively? Maybe it means that you have to look for different ways of saying the mussar until it becomes a davar hanishma and he is able to hear it.
Balance the Negativity
Proper mussar is prefaced with a lot of compliments. You should be giving compliments all the time in your home. This adds positive energy and mitigates the mussar when it comes. You don’t want your wife to feel, “My husband just wants to put me down, all he does is criticize me.” Rather, a wife who has heard many compliments knows she is truly being cared for even when she hears mussar.
It isn’t enough to give just as many compliments as criticisms. The fact is that people identify more with criticism, and they take it much harder. The right proportion is more like ten compliments for every criticism. Your mussar is much more likely to be accepted when you say something like, “There are so many things that you are amazing at, and I really appreciate the things that you do for me (and be specific about what those things are!). I would also really like it if you could…”
Are You Better?
When giving mussar, don’t generalize. Don’t say “You always …” or “You never …” That makes it difficult for a person to accept your mussar. Also, remember that you are not here to control anyone’s bechira. There’s no need to wait for them to agree that you’re right. Tell them what you have to say, and then back off to give them a chance to accept it. Make it easy for them to hear the mussar.
Another thing, don’t give mussar about something that’s hard for the other person, but not for you. Sometimes both the husband and wife have mussar to say to each other. He is telling her about tznius, and she wants him to improve his Torah study. However, tznius is not an issue for him, while she has no difficulty with kvius itim l’Torah. Don’t be condescending towards your spouse and his/her struggles.
Let’s not forget about the other side of this. If you are the one getting the mussar, then your job is to listen. קבל שאמרו ממי האמת את – The truth should be accepted regardless of its source. Even if he didn’t say it in the right way, and at the right time, try to accept it for what it is.
Chinuch: Say it Right
Obviously this all applies to giving mussar to children, as well. Moshe Rabbeinu was the Father of Klal Yisrael, and Yaakov Avinu was talking to Reuven, his son, and yet we see how careful they were.
A child should never think for a second “I’ll run away and go to my uncle Esav.” The mussar needs to be said in a way that he can take it, and he needs to hear many compliments as well. If you’ve already said many positive things and he’s still not ready to listen, maybe increase the compliments.