UNCONDITIONAL POSITIVE REGARD (PARSHAT DEVARIM)
One of the most influential ideas of the prominent humanistic psychologists Carl Rogers is called unconditional positive regard. To demonstrate unconditional positive regard for someone else means to fully accept the person regardless of what he or she has said or done. This does not necessarily mean a complete acceptance of all behaviors. Yet, even when guiding another away from problematic actions, there is still a demonstration of positive regard for the person as a human being. When such conditions exist, there is a healthy space to improve and grow.
Parshat Devarim begins with Moshe recapping some of the highlights of Bnei Yisrael’s travels and travails in the desert. The summary includes critiques, some of which are explicit, while many are veiled within hints and allusions (see Rashi 1:1). Within this context of rebuke, commentators plumb the depths of the text to identify any strategies we can cull as to how to provide proper guidance to those who have lost their way.
In a very powerful discourse, Rabbi Chaim Shmuleivtz addresses why Moshe only hinted to some of the serious sins of Bnei Yisrael. Wouldn’t it have been more effective to state them explicitly? Rashi explains that they were only hinted at in order to preserve the dignity of Bnei Yisrael. If he enumerated the sins, they would have been ashamed and embarrassed. The consideration of preserving the dignity of the human being – kavod ha-beriyot – demands that the rebuke is only alluded to even if would mean that it would be less effective.
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin quotes Rabbi Leibel Eiger who points out that amidst the critique, Moshe inserts a blessing, saying “May Hashem, the God of your fathers, increase you, similar to you (“kachem”) a thousandfold.” The word choice of “kachem” – similar to you – requires elaboration. Rabbi Eiger explains, that because it was the context of rebuke, Moshe wanted to ensure them that he did not think evilly of them. Rather he wished that they multiply, and that their offspring should be “kachem” – just like they were. Moshe respected and admired them, despite the fact that they had previously demonstrated bad behavior.
In an essay with several strategies on how to provide proper rebuke, Rabbi Baruch Simon quotes Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, known as the Shelah HaKadosh, who adds an important insight. Amidst the rebuke, Moshe speaks of the “wise, discerning, and known” leaders amongst Bnei Yisrael (Devarim 1:13). Rabbi Horowitz argues that while providing the rebuke, Moshe is careful to build up the esteem and respect of the people in their own eyes, so he highlights these accolades. The verse in Proverbs (9:8) reads “Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; Reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” In a creative interpretation, Rabbi Horowitz explains that the verse is encouraging the person doing the rebuking not to treat the person he is rebuking as a scoffer, because ultimately, he will not succeed. Rather, relate and interact with the person as if they were wise, and then the rebuke will work.
Putting these sources together, it seems that Moshe interacted with the Bnei Yisrael in this narrative with unconditional positive regard. There was plenty of room to critique their behavior, but Moshe went out of his way to accept them for who they were. Despite their flaws, he demonstrated a respect for them as human beings. If we find ourselves in a position where we are able to guide and influence the behavior of others, we would do well to try and implement this difficult to apply but ultimately successful and worthwhile approach.