DON'T DO THAT!
Rabbi David Walk
Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) was one of the great medieval Biblical commentaries. His commentary had two significant stylist touches. On important issues he would present the material from four points of view: literal, Midrashic, philosophic and mystical. This methodology opens our eyes to the intricate fabric of the holy texts. His other characteristic touch was a preface to each Torah reading. These introductions utilize a verse from the book of Proverbs to clarify the central theme of each reading. He believed that our Sages divided up the weekly portions in such a way so as to emphasize a particular educational goal. His introduction for this week's Torah reading, I believe, could be construed as a preface for the entire book of Deuteronomy.
Rabbeinu Bechaye begins with the following verse: He who admonishes man after Me, will find more favor than he who speaks with flattery (Proverbs 28:23). That's his theme. Chastisement or tochacha is the main motivation for Moshe's valedictory address to the Jewish nation. The good rabbi then goes on to explain the first verses of the book as oblique references to the many sins of the Jews in the desert (this is also pointed out by Rashi). That's as far as he goes, but a quick overview of the entire book reveals many instances of the tochacha phenomenon. Most famous, of course, is the tochacha in parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), but there are so many more. There is a review of the sin of the spies (1:22-36), the sin of the Golden Calf (9:11-14), and the sin of the desert complaints (6:16-19). There are also many warnings about being seduced by the culture and idolatry which will be found in
Okay, hopefully I've made the point that tochcha is the major component of this final testament of Moshe. However, Rabbeinu Bechaye makes a much more important observation, namely that we are being taught not only the importance of tochcha but, hopefully, how to administer it. Giving chastisement to another who has sinned or erred has already been given as a mitzvah, Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt (Leviticus 19:17). But in Deuteronomy we are being taught how to do it through the example of Moshe's words of rebuke. Moshe had two things going for him, which generally we don't. First of all, he was the spiritual leader of the generation. His credentials were impeccable. And secondly, death bed chastisement carries a lot of weight. According to the Midrash both Moshe and Ya'akov waited until near death to let their charges know what had disappointed them, and how they could improve. Most of us are not quite that patient.
In the introduction by Rabbeinu Bechaye he discusses some advice for rebuke. He points out that most individuals requiring chastisement are regular people. They don't want to hear that they're in the wrong and they get defensive about it. The initial response is often to attack the chastiser, As the Talmud says: Everyone says to the chastiser, my cloak is cleaner than yours (Eruvin 16b). Therefore, rebuke must be done very carefully. However, when done correctly, even the person being rebuked recognizes the advantage of self improvement, which is why the verse from Proverbs tells us that positive rebuke is ultimately preferable to flattery, which benefits no one.
Rabbeinu Bechaye also quotes Rabbi Tarfon who says: I wonder if there is anyone in our generation capable of giving chastisement. So, who can give chastisement, now that Moshe isn't with us? To answer that, allow me to quote from another Midrash. Just as there is a mitzvah to offer rebuke when it will be accepted, so, too, is it a mitzvah to withhold rebuke when it will not be accepted (Yevamot 65b). The rabbis cite a verse in
Mishlei 9:8, "Do not rebuke a scoffer, lest he hate you. Rebuke a wise man and he will love you." How do I make sure that I'm only rebuking intelligent people? The Shelah Hakadosh (R. Yeshayahu Horowitz, 1565-1630) explains this means don't rebuke someone by calling them a fool or sinner, instead call him wise so that he will feel close to you and love you. Praise him and subtly inject some of the criticism in between words of praise. Talk to him with respect; elevate him and encourage him to continue along a path of positive service, reparation and return. By denigrating him, we only put him off. Who can give rebuke? A lover.
Shakespeare (William, 1564-1616) got it wrong when he had Demetrius tell Robin in A Midsummer's Night Dream, 'Oh, why rebuke you him that loves you so? Lay breath so bitter on your bitter foe.' We believe chastisement can only be given by a lover. The Midrash tells us that the man giving admonishment in the verse in Proverbs is Moshe; the one giving flattery is Bilaam. Moshe who loves us, rebukes us; Bilaam who hates us, blesses us.
People like to give chastisement. Studies show that bosses get an endorphin rush when they dress down employees. I had a football coach at the junior varsity level, who clearly loved administering humiliation to linemen (me), who missed an assignment. I'm almost recovered. King Solomon explains that we should learn to appreciate receiving rebuke; he never mentions enjoying the application of it. We should give chastisement with great trepidation. If I'm more careful in the way I admonish than in my receiving rebuke, I've gotten the message.
When King Solomon tells us that wise people love rebuke (Proverbs 9:8), he's teaching us how important it is to improve ourselves. That's an important lesson. However, an even greater lesson is to chastise with care. Moshe and Ya'akov waited for the propitious moment to reprove their flock. How much more careful must we be? Please, remember to make it clear to the recipient that we admonish out of love. Easier said than done.
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