Parashat Devarim-Shabbat Hazon 5769/ July 25, 2009
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
In Praise of Reproof*
Dr. Yair Barkai
Tractate Arakhin (16b) tells us:
Whence do we learn that a person who sees something reprehensible in his fellow is obliged to reprove him? For it says, “Reprove your kinsman” (Lev. 19:17). If he reproves him, but the latter does not accept [the rebuke], whence do we know that he should reprove him again? We learn this from Scripture using the emphatic doubling of the verb, hokheah tokhiah. Should he do so even if the other person is embarrassed? [No, for] We learn from Scripture, “but incur no guilt because of him” (Lev. 19:17). How far should one go in reproving? Rav said as far as beating, and Samuel said as far as cursing. Rabbi Johanan says as far as reprimanding.
The Difficulty of Reproving
This Talmudic discussion presents the uncertainties as to how we should behave when we encounter a failing of our fellow person. When it comes to praise, we feel more at ease (even if we do not give praise very often), but even in this matter there is an ideal degree: “Praise a person to his face in moderation; not to his face, fully” (Eruvin 18b), and even the “fully” should not be complete, lest through praising him we get involved in a conversation in which something disparaging of him might be voiced. But reproving is more difficult; such an encounter is embarrassing and loaded, and our initial reaction is to avoid reproving. Yet from what we read above, we see that we are obliged by the Torah to reprove our fellow.
Indeed, the Torah did command us to reprove, but the Sages set limits to this (“Should he do so even if he is embarrassed?”), lest we commit a severe sin in the course of reproving. The point of reproving is to bring the person back from his wrong ways, not to insult him. Reproof should bring about a positive change in the other person; it is not a punitive action that might have negative consequences. The Rabbis felt that insulting someone was metaphorically to deal him a mortal blow, what they called iskei nefashot, matters of life and death.
How Did Moses Do It?
Which brings us around to the Parasha of the week: The Sages viewed Moses’ words at the beginning of Deuteronomy as rebuking the Israelites (Sifre Deuteronomy 1:1):
These are the words that Moses addressed – Were these the only words of prophecy that Moses uttered? Did he not write the entire Torah, as it is written (Deut. 31:9): “Moses wrote down this Teaching.” So what are we to learn from the words, “These are the words that Moses addressed”? That they were words of reproof, for it is written (Deut. 32:15): “So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked.”
The Sifre then goes on to explain that each place-name mentioned by Moses was an oblique criticism of their behavior in the desert. Rashi as well interprets the text along similar lines:
These are the words – since they were words of reproof, and here he listed all the places where they provoked the Omnipresent to anger; therefore he spoke obliquely, only by mere allusion, out of regard for the Israelites.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein takes issue with the conclusion of Rashi's comment (in his collected sermons Darash Moshe):
Rashi's comment on this, “He spoke … only by mere allusion, out of regard for the Israelites,” indeed arouses wonder, for quite close to this Moses cites the sin of the spies at length … and the sin of the golden calf at length; so why did he refer by allusion and show concern for their honor at the beginning only?
Rabbi Feinstein answers this as follows:
Most likely, Moses had to go to great length in order to inform us of the magnitude of their sin, the punishments they received, and their expiation for it; but this was all done by the previous generation. The present generation, who had not committed these sins, he had nothing to rebuke for in this regard.
Thus we learn that one should not dwell at length on reproach when one can be brief. However, if these were the sins of an earlier generation, the one that had died out in the desert, why did Moses mention those sins at all? Here Rabbi Feinstein derives another lesson for us:
In any event, he only hinted at the matter here, for he reproved even the new generation for the sins committed by the previous generation. This is because every person should know that if he sees someone else sinning he should not say, “That could never happen to me,” since he knows that such an act is forbidden and he believes in the Lord and His Teaching; rather, he should be in fear of falling into sin himself, as well.
In other words, reproof helps the rebuked person by shaking his self self-confidence about the strength of his own ability to curb himself against sinning and by helping him internalize the fact that human beings may always fall into culpability, even when they “believe in the Lord and His Teaching.”
A Gentle Hint
Sometimes, continues Rabbi Feinstein, it is best to make do with a mere allusion:
Further, we should say that [the Parasha] serves to teach us that if one can reprove someone by a mere allusion, then one should not reprove him with harsh words that spell out the sin. It is better not to mention that a person used to commit a certain transgression, flagrantly flaunting the Lord, for we should not even raise the possibility of such a thing happening… But when an allusion does not suffice, one must prove that what he did was a grave sin, and for this one needs to spell out the matter and say harsh things, as he [Moses] did afterwards, dwelling at length on the sin of the golden calf and the sin of the spies.
The following midrash on the first verse in this week's reading teaches us about the proper relationship between the person rebuking and the person rebuked ( Sifre Deuteronomy, par. 1):
Speak to all
Not for Everyone
The redactor's annotation (Louis Finkelstein) on this paragraph reads:
In my opinion, the general idea of the disputants is that a person is said to be capable of delivering reproof if that person is fit and proper from the point of view of his morality and virtue. Eleazar ben Azariah stresses especially the problem of a generation that is so morally wayward and intractable that it is not even fit to be reproved. Rabbi Akiva’s view is that the difficulty lies not with the generation, but primarily with the tactics used by the person reproving the generation, who did not learn how one should deliver reproof and does not know how to explain his reproof to his contemporaries in a manner that they will attend to and accept.
Other characteristics necessary for the person reproving and the reproved are presented in Midrash Ha-Gaddol (Deut. 1:1):
As Scripture says, “But it shall go well [ yin‘am = be pleasant] with them who decide justly [alt. Rendering – “those who reprove”]; blessings of good things will light upon them” (Prov. 24:25). What is meant by “it shall go well with those who reprove”? This teaches us that the words of a person who reproves his fellow are pleasing to the Almighty…and whoever accepts reproof and mends his ways is considered never to have sinned… There is nothing more difficult in the world than someone who hates reproof.
Another interpretation of “it shall go well
with those who reprove”: this refers to
two pleasing figures who voiced reproach of
Criticism Out of Love
Thus, the point of departure for any reproof must be love – love of the person delivering the reproach for the person being reproached, and understanding of the person receiving the reproach that the motives are none other than to do him well and increase the love between them, as in the words of Proverbs (3:12): “For whom the Lord loves, He rebukes, as a father the son whom he favors.”
This idea is stressed in Rabbi’s words of praise (Tamid 28a):
Rabbi says: What is the straight path that a person should choose? To love rebuke, for as long as there is rebuke in the world, well-being comes to the world, good and blessing come to the world, and evil disappears from the world, for it is said: “But it shall go well with those who rebuke; blessings of good things will light upon them” (Prov. 24:25)… Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani cited Rabbi Jonathan: Whoever reproves his fellow for the sake of Heaven receives a reward from G-d, for it says: “He who reproves a man will in the end” (Prov. 28:23). Moreover, he is bestowed with mercy, for it says: “find more favor than he who flatters him” (Prov. 28:23).
So we learn that reproach must be motivated by love, directed at improvement, and be clean of contempt. We must all educate ourselves to accept the reproach of our fellows lovingly, for it is to help us and to serve as a lighthouse, directing our ship to a safe haven.
* Dedicated to the memory of my mother Sarah Keila Barkai, nee Grozhinsky, who passed away on the ninth of Ab, 5765 (2005).