5771/ August 6, 2011
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, HYPERLINK "mailto:email@example.com" firstname.lastname@example.org
In Praise of Rebuke
Dr. Yair Barkai
Arakhin (16b) says:
Whence do we know that a person who sees unseemly behavior in his fellow must rebuke that person? We know it from the verse in Scripture, "Reprove your kinsman" (Lev. 19:17). What if he rebukes someone, and that person does not accept the criticism, whence do we learn that he should rebuke him again? From Scripture saying "Hokheah tokhiah" – a construction that doubles the word which means "reprove." Even if his countenance changes? The answer to this we learn from the words, "but incur no guilt because of him" (loc. sit.). How far should one go in chastising? Rav says to the point of hitting, and Samuel, to the point of cursing. Rabbi Johanan says to the point of rebuking.
This Talmudic discussion presents questions that arise when we encounter the shortcomings of our fellow. We feel quite comfortable when it comes to praising someone (although it seems we do not do so very often), but even praise must be given in proper measure: "Praise a person somewhat to his face, and fully not to his face" (Eruvin 18b); even the "full" praise should not be utterly complete, lest praising someone lead us into saying something derogatory about the person. But when it comes to reproaching, there we have difficulty; the situation is embarrassing and highly charged, and our initial reaction is a wish to avoid it, but from what we have read above we see that the Torah commands us to reprove our fellow.
Although the Torah commands us to reprove our fellow, the Sages place limitations on this ("Even if his countenance changes?"), lest we ourselves become guilty of a serious transgression in the process. We must remember that the aim of reproach someone is to bring the person who has failed back to the good, not to insult him. That is to say, reproach is supposed to bring about a positive change in the other person, not serve as a punishment that might lead to a negative outcome. Bear in mind that we are dealing here with a matter of life and death.
The Sages viewed the introductory remarks made by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy as reproach of the Israelites (Sifre Deuteronomy 1.1):
These are the words that Moses addressed – was Moses' prophecy confined to these words alone? Did he not write the entire Torah, as it said (Deut. 31:9): "Moses wrote down this Teaching"? What does Scripture wish to teach us by saying, "These are the words that Moses addressed…"? It teaches us that these were words of reproach, as it is written (Deut. 32:15): "So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked."
Rashi, as well, interpreted this text similarly:
These are the words – since they are words of reproach, and he proceeded to list here all the instances in which they vexed the Lord, therefore he spoke obliquely and only hinted at them, to protect the honor of Israel.
Rabbi Moses Feinstein in his work on the weekly parasha, Darash Mosheh, took issue with the latter part of Rashi's remarks:
Rashi said, "He only hinted at them, to protect the honor of Israel." This is most surprising, for shortly thereafter Moses went into the sin of the spies at great length… and the sin of the golden calf at length; so why did at the beginning of his reproval to them did he speak briefly at first and show concern for their honor?
Rabbi Feinstein himself offers an answer:
It appears to have been in order to inform them of the magnitude of the sins of their fathers and their punishment for them; and regarding what they did to make atonement he also had to describe at length. All this concerned things done by the previous generation, but as for this generation, who had not committed these sins, he had no reason to reprove them for all this. (Darash Mosheh, Parashat Devarim)
In other words, the lengthy part of the reproval in the Parasha was what G-d had told their ancestors, who had committed the sins, but the present generation, as Rashi explained, received only hints about their behavior so as no to embarrass them. We learn than one should not be lengthy in one's rebuke where it is possible to be brief. Rabbi Feinstein goes on to teach us another general rule:
In any event, he spoke here in allusions and also reproved the younger generation for the sins committed by the previous generation, since all should know that when they see another person who has sinned they should not say that such a sin could never be committed by them because they know it is forbidden and they believe in the Lord's Teaching; rather, they should be fearful lest they also fall into the same sin.
In other words, reproach helps those who are reproved, shaking their self-assurance that they are "guaranteed" never to sin and making them internalize the knowledge that human beings are forever subject to sinning, even if they "believe in the Lord and His Teaching."
Sometimes, says Rabbi Feinstein, it is best to make do with a hint:
Further, we should say that it teaches us that reproach can be given with a hint, without being harsh and specific about the sin, since it is better not to mention that a person was committing a certain transgression and rebelling against the Lord, for we should not even imagine that such a thing is possible… But when a hint does not suffice, one must reprove, since what they have done is a great sin and requires explicitly harsh words, as in Moses' later words in which he dwelled at length on the sin of the golden calf and the sin of the spies.
The following homily on the first verse of this week's reading teaches us about the importance of maintaining a proper relationship between the rebuke and the rebuked (Sifre Deuteronomy, par. 1):
Another interpretation: to all Israel: this teaches us that they were all capable of rebuke and of withstanding rebuke. Rabbi Tarfon said: By the sacred service, if there is a soul in this generation who is capable of rebuking! Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: By the sacred service, if there is a soul in this generation who is capable of accepting rebuke! Rabbi Akiva said: By the sacred service, if there is a soul in this generation who knows how to rebuke. Rabbi Johanan ben Nuri said: I call heaven and earth as witnesses that on more than five occasions Akiva was criticized because of me before Gamaliel in Jabneh, because I complained about him and Gamaliel rebuked him, but despite that I know that his affection for me grew, fulfilling what is written in Scripture, "Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you" (Prov. 9:8).
The editor of Sifre , Eliezer Finkelstein, noted:
In my opinion, the general thrust of these deliberations is that being able to rebuke means being fit and worthy from the standpoint of one's morals and virtues. Ibn Ezra stresses especially the failing of the lawless generation who, in their low moral condition, are not even worthy of being rebuked. Rabbi Akiva's opinion is that the difficulty lies not with the generation, but primarily with the tactics used by those who would rebuke that generation, who had not learned how to deliver rebuke, explaining their reproachful words to their contemporaries in a manner that these words would gain acceptance and be followed.
Other qualities necessary to rebuke or be rebuked are presented in Midrash ha-Gadol (Deut. 1.1):
This is what Scripture says: "But it shall go well with them who reprove; blessings of good things will light upon them" (Prov. 24:25). What is meant by "it shall go well (Heb. yin'am) with them who reprove"? This indicates that the words of one who reproves another must be pleasant (na'im) and likeable to the Almighty … and anyone who accepts reproach and mends his ways is considered never to have sinned… There is nothing more difficult for the world than someone who hates reproach.
Another interpretation of it shall go well with them who reprove: there were two figures whose reproach was pleasant and who brought criticism of Israel to their Father in heaven: Moses and Samuel. Observe their wisdom in not reproving Israel until they had first reproved themselves… Of them it is said, "It shall go well with them who reprove." But others, since they would rob and embezzle from Israel, could not reprove them… So we learn that whoever would reprove others must first reprove himself.
Thus the point of departure for any words of reproach must be love, love of the one who rebukes towards the one who is rebuked, and understanding on the part of the person who is being rebuked that this rebuke is only intended to help him and shower him with love, as in the verse from Proverbs (3:12): "For whom the Lord loves, He rebukes, as a father the son whom he favors."
This notion is emphasized in the praise given by Rabbi (Tamid 28a):
Rabbi says: what is the straight road that a person should choose? To love reproach, for as long as there is reproach in the world, calm comes to the world, good and beneficence come to the world, and evil takes itself off from the world, as it is written, "But it shall go well with them who rebuke; blessings of good things will light upon them" (Prov. 24:25)… Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: whoever reproves his fellow for the sake of Heaven, is rewarded with a portion from the Holy One, blessed be He, as it is written, "He who reproves a man will in the end find more favor than he who flatters him" (Prov. 28:23).
Thus we learn that reproach must be motivated by love, and for the purpose of betterment, not contempt. We must train ourselves to accept lovingly the reproach of our fellow who seeks to help us and serve as a guiding lamp, steering our ship to a safe haven.