The delicate art of rebuke

“Hocheiach Tochiach Es Amisecha V’lo Sisa Alav Cheit; You shall reprove your fellow and do not bear sin because of him (Leviticus, 19, 17).” It is from this verse that we are enjoined to rebuke our fellow Jew upon seeing him or her engage in any form of prohibited action. Not only do parents and educators have an obligation to ensure that their children and students keep to the correct path, but every Jew is tasked with the responsibility of educating his fellow man regarding the correct adherence of the 613 commandments.

At the same time, this directive comes with some serious caveats. Upon the concluding words of the aforementioned verse; and do not bear sin because of him, our sages expound (Toras Kohanim, Erachin 16b), that one who gives his fellow rebuke should be careful not to embarrass his friend to the point where the blood drains from his face in public.

The book of Deuteronomy begins with Moses enumerating the many instances in which the Jewish people sinned during their sojourn in the desert. However, in order to safeguard the respect and dignity of the Jewish people, Moses does not mention these instances explicitly, but rather hints at them by merely mentioning the places in which they occurred.

Similarly, we are taught that Moses only rebuked the Jewish people close to his death (see Rashi, Deuteronomy, 1, 3). This practice was something that Moses inferred from the actions of our forefather Jacob, who also waited until his deathbed to rebuke his children for their misdeeds. The rationale for this approach is also very connected with the idea of safeguarding the dignity of the one who is receiving the rebuke.

The danger of meting out rebuke in the wrong form, dosage or time is so great that our sages tell us that Jacob feared that if he were to rebuke his saintly son Reuben at an earlier point in time, then the latter might have left him and joined a different nation. This is a mind-boggling concept to consider, as our sages tell us that Reuben did not commit an actual sin and that he was well aware of his mistake to the point where he was engaging in constant repentance on his own initiative. Why then, was Jacob so concerned with how Reuben would take the rebuke?

The great Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, would point out from here how delicate and precarious the art of rebuke can be. When someone is appraised of their mistakes, they often become naturally defensive, assuming that it is not only their actions but their entire character that is being called into question. It is therefore incumbent upon the one who is giving the rebuke to make it crystal clear to the one who is receiving the rebuke, that although they may have erred in a particular action, they are still of immeasurable worth as an individual.

Concurrently, it is important for the one who is doing the rebuking to convey the notion that their sole intention in giving the rebuke is the betterment of the one receiving it. If the one on the receiving end were to perceive that one who is chastising him is interested in putting him down as a means of raising themselves up, the results will almost assuredly be negative.

In this past week’s Editor’s View, Rabbi Pinchos Lipshutz, Editor-in-Chief, and publisher of the Yated Ne’eman newspaper, related a number of stories involving the delicacy and the craft of our sages in the art of rebuke. I will relate one of the stories here.

The saintly Chofetz Chaim was once sojourning at an inn on one of his travels to sell his books. While sitting at the inn, a burly ruffian burst into the eating area and roughly demanded to be served. When the food was brought to this man, he gobbled it up in a ravenous and impolite manner without making any blessings before eating. Sensing the Chofetz Chaim’s shock and revulsion at such conduct, the innkeeper approached the saintly Rabbi and explained.

“Rabbi, please don’t make a scene. Anything you say to this man will fall on deaf ears. He was kidnapped as a tender aged boy during the Cantonist decrees and conscripted into the Czar’s army for decades.”

“Have no fear,” the Chofetz Chaim replied. “I know just how to reach him.”

With that, the Chofetz Chaim approached the rough and burly fellow and began to talk to him with awe, respect and love. “Is it true that you were taken at such a young age away from your parents, friends and community? It must have been so hard for you! You must have undergone such trials and tribulations over the years and were probably urged by your handlers to convert. And yet, I see that you didn’t! Even after all that you’ve gone through you have not abandoned your religion! I envy the reward that surely awaits you in the world to come!”

Upon hearing the loving words from the saintly Rabbi, the ruffian’s heart began to soften and he started to cry.

The Chofetz Chaim continued, “someone like you, has undoubtedly merited to come to the level of being considered a holy man. If you live the rest of your life as a “kosher Jew”, you will be the happiest man alive.” As the story goes, this man became a full repentant and lived the rest of his life in a God-fearing manner.

Even in our self-talk that we engage in on a constant basis, when we take ourselves to task for not having lived up to our expectations, we need to be so careful to lace it with the right context. We need to tell ourselves that we can do better because deep down we are better! Otherwise, we may, heaven-forbid, conclude that we should identify with our shortcomings and just throw in the towel.

Every morning, regardless of how well we have adhered to our religious commitments in the past, we assert “Elokai, neshoma shenosato bi tehorah hi; My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure.” It is with such a thought in mind that we must embark upon a mission to live up to the purity of our souls and to act in accordance with our true capabilities.

About the Author
Baruch Weiss is a psychotherapy intern, a Rabbi, and a journalist.
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