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Giving Rebuke

Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

The Torah Portion of Devarim contains Moses' rebuke (1) to the Jewish people. It begins with Moshe mentioning a number of place names that do not appear anywhere else in the Torah.(2) The Sages tell us that these names are in fact allusions to places in which the Jews had sinned. However, Moses did not explicitly state that the Jews had sinned; rather, he merely hinted to their transgressions. Rashi explains that he did so "because of the honor of Israel" (3) - even though the Jewish people needed to be rebuked, to explicitly mention their sins would have been too much of a disgrace to them. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz derives an important lesson about rebuke from Rashi's explanation. He writes, "We learn from here how much it is incumbent upon the one who rebukes to worry about and be concerned for the honor of the person being rebuked." (4)

It follows that the key factor in determining whether a rebuke will have a positive or negative effect is one's motivation for rebuking. Moshe maintained his love and concern for the Jewish people even while speaking to them very harshly. Indeed, it seems clear that this love gave rise to this rebuke - it was purely an act of kindness. In doing so he was able to remain sensitive to their honor while simultaneously criticizing them. The Gemara tells us that it is exceedingly difficult to rebuke someone effectively.(5) Nonetheless, we are not exempt from the mitzvah, and there are times when one can do a great kindness by clarifying the correct way to behave to someone who is likely to listen. We learn from Moshe that the one who rebukes must care about the other person and empathize with him, trying to understand where he is coming from and how best to influence him for the good. Conversely, rebuke can be extremely damaging when it emanates from anger and a lack of concern for the spiritual well-being of the other person. In such instances, the one who rebukes will make no effort to try to understand why the other person is acting in such a way, and may therefore have unreasonable expectations of him.

In contrast, rebuke that is motivated out of concern for one's fellow will lead us to measure our words carefully before correcting their behavior. Rav Yehonasan Eibeschitz writes that the greatest way to fulfill the mitzvah of 'love thy neighbor' is by caring about the spiritual well being of one's fellow Jew. This attitude manifests itself in the right form of rebuke.(6) This lesson is very pertinent to Tisha B'Av: The Sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. Rav Eibetschitz continues that the baseless hatred was expressed in the fact that people refrained from rebuking each other. As a consequence, the numerous groups of heretical sects (7) were allowed to grow and adversely influence the Jewish people. According to this explanation, hatred is not limited to active adversity - it also includes apathy.(8) Such apathy indicated a severe deficiency in the interpersonal relationships between the people at the time of the Second Temple.

The Sages tell us that any generation which fails to rebuild the Temple is considered to have destroyed it. This means that the present generation is still affected by baseless hatred, which, as defined by Rav Eibetschitz, means not caring enough about one's fellow Jew to want to help him improve his service of God. While we have seen that rebuke can be very damaging when done in the wrong way, nonetheless, if it emanates from a true feeling of love then it can surely be used to greatly help our fellow Jew.


1. The Hebrew word used by the Torah here is, tochachah is generally translated as 'rebuke', although a more accurate translation is 'clarification'.

2. Devarim, 1:1.

3. Rashi, ibid.

4. Sichos Mussar, Parshas Devarim, Maamar 88, p. 375.

5. Arachin, 16b.

6. Yaaros Dvash, Drush 10, quoted by Adler. 'Bina v'daas', p. 345.

7. Such as the Tzadokim and Beitusim.

8. See my piece on Massei for more in depth on this inyan.


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