The Right Rebuke

July 19, 2015

5 min read


Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )

"These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Yisrael on the other side of the Yardein, opposite Suf, between Paran and between Tofel, and Lavan, and Chatzeiros, and Di-Zahav (Devarim 1:1)."

The Targum elucidates that this verse is alluding to rebuke that Moshe gave to the Jewish People for the various sins they had committed during their journey through the desert. Indeed, Rashi cites Chazal's statement that some of the places mentioned in this verse are nowhere to be found in all of the Tanach; rather, they are allusions to the sins of the Jewish People.

Almost always, the Torah openly berates the Jewish People - and even its most illustrious leaders when necessary - for their sins. The wrongdoing is described in full detail, "no holds barred". Why is it, then, that here we suddenly find a "cover up" going on? Why is Moshe reprimanding the Jewish People through hints? This difficulty is compounded by the fact that Rashi explains that this rebuke was deliberately given in the presence of the entire Jewish People in order that no one would later be able to say, "If I had been there I would have been able to refute the rebuke." If that is the case, then how much more so would one expect the rebuke to be delivered in clear, open form!?

In truth, Rashi has already dealt with this issue: "Because they are words of rebuke…therefore he 'closed' the matter and [only] mentioned them in hints for the sake of the honor of the Jewish People."

So, what happened to the honor of the Jewish People all the other times in the Torah that they were censured? Why is it that up until this point all of their wrongdoings were labeled, pronounced, and expressed in full, explicit detail?

There is a fundamental difference between the previous descriptions of the sins of the Jewish People and the rebuke that Moshe is giving them here. When the Torah describes something, it is in order to serve as a lesson to the Jewish People for all eternity. When we read about the mistakes of our ancestors, we are supposed to learn from that occurrence about how not to behave. The narrative of the Jewish People's sins, then, throughout the Torah is not addressing those Jews that were living then at that time, per se, as much as it is addressing Jewry as a whole for all generations.

Here, however, the Torah is recounting how Moshe directly addressed the Jewish People that were in front of him at that very moment, and how he told them negative things about themselves. Indeed, this is quite different - it is the account of the very personal, intimate rebuke that Moshe delivered to his People.

Human nature is to become defensive and closed when one feels that one is being denounced. We very much need to feel that we are good. If someone is trying to tell us that there is something negative about us, our natural reaction is to feel threatened. We become defensive, close up, and thus deny and stave off what we perceive as an attack.

When the Rambam describes the mitzvah of rebuke, he makes it abundantly clear that the one giving the rebuke must clearly convey to the one receiving it that he is doing so only for his good and well-being. By commanding us to give rebuke when necessary, Hashem is not giving us an allowance to vent anger or frustration at another; not at all. The mitzvah is clearly one of caring for one's fellow Jew - you genuinely care for him and want to help him achieve his portion in the Next World, and that is why you are offering him constructive criticism.

Here - where Moshe is giving personal, intimate rebuke - he does it in a way that sends a very clear message of care and concern to the Jewish People. He shows them that he is completely concerned for their sense of dignity and self-respect. He gives the rebuke in hints and not openly. He demonstrates that he is not just "out to get them" - to berate them and enumerate their faults and negative characteristics. He is simply and lovingly trying to help them to achieve the most out of life: to guide them on their path of coming ever closer to Hashem through keeping His Torah, and to thereby help them attain their full portion in the Next World.

This lesson is particularly important for us to absorb doing this period of mourning over the destruction of the Temple that began the incredibly long exile that we still endure.

Chazal reveal to us that the primary cause of the destruction of the Temple was the transgression of sinas chinam, baseless hatred. Obviously, then, one of main ways through which we can bring about the ultimate redemption is by correcting this problem.

One serious pitfall in this regard lies in our uncanny ability to notice faults in others.

We must realize that there is no excuse for simply berating and defaming one's fellow Jew. Yes, when one notices someone committing a wrongdoing, under certain circumstances it is one's responsibility to bring it to his attention; but, this must be done out of love for that individual. The rebuke must emanate from genuine concern and care, from the desire to help him be the best that he can and achieve Olam Ha'bah.

We must truly desire to bring others as much honor as we can, and cover up their flaws as much as possible. And, even when it is absolutely necessary to bring others' flaws to their attention, it must be done out of love and with the utmost of sensitivity. And the manner in which it is done must express that love and sensitivity.

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