Message on Parshat Aharei-Kedoshim 5770-2010

The Mitzvah of Rebuke -Tochechah

I am grateful for many insights of this message from Joseph Telushkin’s Code of Jewish Ethics v. 1

This week’s portion, Aharei-Mot Kedoshim is a pomegranate bursting with juicy seeds of insight.   I would like to focus on one verse, “You shall rebuke, yes rebuke, (hoche’ah tochi’ah)  your fellow, and not bear sin because of him.”  (Leviticus 19:17) This means that we should not remain silent when a person engages in bad or unseemly behavior.  Rather, we should strive to speak to the person and share with in a tactful and effective way what is wrong with his/her behavior.  The second clause of the verse, “and not bear sin because of him.” has been the subject of ongoing commentary over the ages.  It can be summarized (with the help of Joseph Telushkin) that ‘if we have the ability to influence someone who is acting improperly, and don’t, then we share in the responsibility for that person’s misdeeds.’  Or as Rashi says, when we do rebuke we should not humiliate the person we seek to criticize by embarrassing him in public or through insensitive actions.

The mitzvah of rebuke when done properly can change the course of a person’s life and lead to great moral improvement. 

An adult remembering his childhood at summer camp recalled how he had a slow witted counselor. He often would mock the fellow’s lack of intelligence and incompetence.  One day his counselor from the previous year, who he idolized overheard him, took him aside, and told him how disappointed he was in his behavior.  From that point on, the young man never mocked his counselor again.  As this first counselor understood, if you have reason to hope your words can have an effect, speak up. 

The Rabbis acknowledged however that the mitzvah of rebuke  is one of the most difficult mitzvot to do in the Torah.  They  recognized that proper rebuke is rare, and that people often refrain from criticizing when necessary or  rebuke  in an improper manner, aggravating the situation.

For example to issue a rebuke or criticism,  the rebuker needs to have credibility-he or she needs to follow the moral or upstanding  behavior that he  sees lacking in the other.  Sometimes we criticize love ones for faults that have not confronted in ourselves.  

A story is told about Gandhi.  A woman asked him to tell her husband to stop eating so much sugar because he was endangering his health.  Gandhi told the woman to come back with her husband a week later.     He then said to the man, “Stop eating sugar.”  When asked why he needed the week’s delay, he said, “To stop eating sugar myself.”

A great scholar from another tradition issued this insightful warning : Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.

One of the most difficult aspects of rebuke is the question on whether a legitimate rebuke will be heard.  The Chafetz Chayyim is reputed to have said when giving a talk to a group of students  about a behavior that deserved rebuke, “I am not referring to anyone in particular, but if there is anyone here who thinks I mean him, I do mean him.  But sometimes we can’t be direct doing this mitzvah. 

So often we feel that criticizing someone, even in the most tactful manner, will be met with defensiveness, denial, or even derision.  Sometimes to rebuke brings danger to oneself.

A friend told me about a college classmate who observed a group of tough looking motorcyclists at the beach, smoking and throwing their stubs in the sand.  He rebuked them for littering, and in response, they beat him up.

“Do not rebuke a scoffer a scoffer, for he will hate you.”  (Proverbs  9:8)   According to the Rabbis,  we are exempt from delivering a rebuke if doing so will endanger us or cause the other person to hate us.   If a person is known for being testy, or lashing out at those who criticize him, you are not obligated to rebuke him. 

However a person who puts up a wall against all criticism pays a heavy price.  As Telushkin observes, “A person who does lash out at someone issuing rebuke might actually enjoy a significant decrease in criticism.  However, the fact that the people around him have concluded that it’s not worth pointing out his  faults (since he is apparently incapable of changing) means that this persons life as an evolving spiritual and ethical being has ended.  Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught, “If you are not going to be better tomorrow than you were today, then what need have you for tomorrow?” And if no  one ever feels comfortable being criticized the likelihood is that this person will be better tomorrow is small if not nonexistent.  ”

Sometimes the rejected criticism we offer can only help our own moral awareness.

“A Jewish folktale tells of a man who  lived in Sodom, who used to protest  each day against the evil perpetrated there. A child once said to him, “No one listens to you. No one repents. Why do you keep shouting?” The man answered, “At first, I protested because I hoped to change them.  Now I protest because if I don’t they will change me. ”

The Mitzvah of rebuke then requires a lot of forethought.  Here are some things to consider

Before issuing a criticism of another. 

  • Do I care about the person I am about to criticize?
  • Have I examined my own behavior in light my fellow?
  • Am I being fair or am I exaggerating?
  • Will my words hurt the other person’s feelings, and if so, how can I express myself without inflicting too much pain?
  • How would I feel if someone criticized me this way?
  • Am I enjoying the prospect of offering this criticism?
  • Is my criticism confined to a specific act or trait?
  • Are my words nonthreatening and, at least in part, reassuring? 
  • Can I imagine improving my relationship with person or helping to make him a better person?


May we be worthy of fulfilling the Mitzvah of rebuke that will lead to Tikun Olam-an improvement of the world, not only of the person we care about whose behavior concerns us, but also our own behavior and relationships with other. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: