Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk



There's a big debate in traditional sources about giving chastisement. Even though there is a mitzvah in the Torah, 'You shall surely rebuke your fellow (Leviticus 19:17),' many authorities discuss how it's often better to refrain from this activity than to participate in it. Already in the book of Proverbs it says: So don't bother correcting scoffers; they will only hate you (9:8). The Talmud also teaches that 'Just like it is a mitzvah to say something that will be heeded, it is a mitzvah not to say something that will not be heeded' (Yevamot 65b). Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector (1817-1896), whose name adorns the yeshiva part of Yeshiva University, put it best with the following example "The difference between me and others is similar to that of a cat and a person who lives in a house. Both of them hate mice, but the cat wants the mice around so he can chase them and kill them, the people who live in the house would rather that the mice not be there at all. Similarly, I pray that there be no more sin and I work toward that end, others want sin to continue so that they have someone to hate and yell at. That's the danger of rebuke if not done for the right reason." And what is the right reason? The very next verse in Leviticus is: And you shall love your fellow, as you love yourself. The only reason to ever rebuke is out of love and concern for the other. So, there's a certain hesitation on the rebuke front within our sources. However, there's no debate about the other end. Everyone agrees that we should accept rebuke from all sources.


As I've noted in these articles many times before, Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) introduces every parsha of the Torah with a verse from Proverbs which he believes best describes the content of that week's reading. This week's quote is: Open rebuke is better than hidden love (27:5). The open rebuke referred to by King Solomon in the verse is the rebuke of Moshe in this week's parsha. This is what Moshe said to the Jews: Perhaps there is among you a man, woman, family, or tribe, whose heart strays this day from the Lord, our God, to go and worship the deities of those nations. Perhaps there is among you a root that produces hemlock and wormwood. The Lord will not be willing to forgive them; rather, then, the Lord's fury and zeal will fume against that person, and the entire curse written in this book will rest upon that individual, and the Lord will obliterate that person's name from beneath the heavens (Deuteronomy 29:17 &19). The Midrash (Devarim Raba 8) explains that this open rebuke declared by Moshe is so good because he delivered it with love and care. Rabbeinu Bechaye pleads with us to take these warnings to heart. He then reminds us that the end of the verse I quoted above about not bothering to chastise a scoffer ends with the words 'rebuke a scholar, who will then love you.' The height of wisdom is to openly embrace those who correct us with appreciation.


The heart of Rabbeinu Bechaye's commentary on this verse is the following statement: God chastises us in order that we should repent from our evil path. However, one who despises rebuke, it's not enough to be punished with suffering because for them there is no repair (Tikun). Love of rebuke is the sign of the best character, while the hatred of rebuke testifies to the evil nature and lack of character of the individual.


Now we can understand another aspect of this famous speech delivered by Moshe just a few days before his death. At the beginning of this section the verse states: You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel,your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers (verses 9-10). Normally, we think that it's wonderful that Moshe made sure to deliver his message to the entire society, even those who are often denigrated and left out. But now we read it differently. Moshe is teaching that everyone must be willing to accept rebuke and correction even the highest echelons of the community. Since he's demanding that they all admit error and repent, it's remarkable that he includes the leaders of society, who often view themselves as beyond reproach. Well, not in Judaism.


It's very hard to deliver these words of rebuke, but one of the best in Jewish history was Harav Elchanan Wasserman (1874-1941). In his position as head of the Novardik Yeshiva, he offered weekly addresses of chastisement to the students. It was noted that he always looked down at his lectern while delivering these speeches. When he fled before the Nazi onslaught the students lovingly hid his lectern in anticipation of his return, which wasn't to be. However, the students noticed that firmly attached to the center of his lectern was a mirror. To deliver rebuke one must also accept rebuke.


Of course this trait is not only Jewish. Already in the fifth century BCE, Socrates advised, 'Think not those faithful who praise all thy words and actions; but those who kindly reprove thy faults.' And even Ben Franklin, who had a few faults himself, said, 'Love your enemies, for they tell you your faults.' So, as we enter this season of repentance, our biggest ally may be our ability to hear, accept and correct our shortcomings. It's very hard to fix things when we can't understand that they are broken. Therefore, at least for the next two weeks, learn that we should dish out less, and learn to take more. In this effort to reform ourselves, it might help to remember another great quote from Ben Franklin, 'The sting of a reproach is the truth of it.' Just like with iodine, the sting heals.

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