Effective Rebuke

April 27, 2020

7 min read


Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20 )

You shall surely rebuke your fellow man, and you shall not bear a sin over him. (19:17)

All Jews are responsible for each other. Therefore, if a Jew sees another committing a sin, he must rebuke him and set him straight. But how does one rebuke another Jew? This is a very difficult thing to do. In fact, it is one of the most difficult mitzvos to perform properly.

The final words of the commandment are “velo sisa alav cheit, and you shall not bear a sin over him.” What exactly does this mean? Rashi explains that if you embarrass the person you are rebuking, you are committing a sin. This is an important guideline for the mitzvah of giving rebuke. It must be done carefully, discreetly and oh so gently. Otherwise, you will embarrass him. Then you will not only have failed in your rebuke, but you will also have committed a very grave sin.

Rav Gedaliah Schorr suggests a further interpretation based on a variant translation of the words velo sisa alav cheit. They can be read as “do not raise up the sin over him.” Do not magnify the sin and minimize the person.

If you see someone doing a sin, do not place the emphasis on the magnitude of the sin. Do not say, “How could you do such a terrible thing?” You are raising up the sin over him, dwarfing him by the magnitude of what he has done. You are making the person feel about two inches tall. This is not the way to offer rebuke. It is offensive, and it is also almost guaranteed to be ineffective. Better to place the emphasis on the person and say, “How could a person such as you do such a thing?” Better to raise him up over the sin, to show him that to do such a thing is beneath him, that he is too great to do such a thing. This is the way to rebuke with genuine kindness and lasting effect.

A rabbi was once asked to be guest speaker in a neighboring town, and he chose rebuke as his topic. After speaking about the importance of giving rebuke properly, he told a story.

“I do not know this story firsthand,” he began. “But I’ve heard many times, and I believe its is true. The Chafetz Chaim had a yeshivah in the Polish town of Radin. In those days, during the early part of the 20th century, there were many pressures on yeshivah boys. Some of their peers were leaving their faith and seeking greener pastures in socialism, secular Zionism or just plain secularism. I suppose it was inevitable that some of the boys in the yeshivos would also be affected, that a tiny number of them would do things no yeshivah boy would do today.

“One of the boys in the Chafetz Chaim’s yeshivah was caught smoking on Shabbos. The Chafetz Chaim was told about it, and he summoned the boy to his room. The boy stayed in the Chafetz Chaim’s room for about two minutes, and afterward, he kept Shabbos scrupulously.

“Can you imagine what the Chafetz Chaim’s rebuke must have been like? Ah, if only we could have an inkling of what went on in that room for those two minutes! What did the Chafetz Chaim say to this boy? It would be like a beacon of light for us. I’m sure all of us would love to know what he said. But we don’t. And so we just have to try and do the best we can.”

After the rabbi finished speaking, a man came over to him. His face was tear stained. “Rabbi, I can tell you what the Chafetz Chaim said to that boy,” he declared. “You see, I was that boy.”

The rabbi was stunned. “Please tell me,” he whispered.

“When I was called to the Chafetz Chaim’s room,” he said, “I was terrified. What could I say to the great tzaddik? How could I justify smoking on Shabbos? And right in his yeshivah! I couldn’t even justify it to myself. It was one of those rash and foolish things young people often do without thinking. I walked into his room, and there, he was, his holy face distorted in a grimace of pain. He walked over to me, his head barely reaching to my chest, and he took my hand in his. ‘Shabbos,’ he said softly, and he began to weep. After a minute, he looked up at me and said it again, ‘Shabbos.’ His hot tears dripped onto my hands, and the sound of his weeping penetrated my heart. That was all it took. Two minutes of the Chafetz Chaim’s pain.”

The Chafetz Chaim did not put this boy down. He did not berate him or belittle him. He gently but powerfully impressed on him the sacred nature of Shabbos. That was the most effective rebuke he could have given him.

Rabbi Akiva’s Principle

One of Rabbi Akiva's most famous sayings is, “Ve’ahavta lereiacha kamocha. Love your neighbor as you do yourself. This is a fundamental principle of the Torah.” This mitzvah is one of the pillars of the entire Torah. We find a similar thought expressed by Hillel. The Talmud relates (Shabbos 31a) that a prospective gentile convert to Judaism asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah “while standing on one foot.” Hillel replied, “Do not do to others that which is hateful to you. This is the essence of Torah. All the rest is explanation.”

It seems to me that Rabbi Akiva was most suited to speak about the importance and centrality of this mitzvah. Rabbi Akiva was a great rosh yeshivah with many thousands of students, and he experienced a shattering tragedy. All of his twenty-four thousand students died during the Omer period between Pesach and Shavuos. It is an incredible number, a number that fails to penetrate the consciousness even in our day of huge yeshivos.

How would one of us have dealt with such a blow? What would we have done if all twenty-four thousand ¾ twenty-four thousand! ¾ of our students had died in one fell swoop due to some character flaw, a catastrophe that inevitably must have reflected somewhat negatively on their rosh yeshivah? First, we would, of course, have to deal with a serious bout of depression and despondency. And if we managed to get over that, we would probably retire with a broken heart.

What did Rabbi Akiva do? The Talmud tells us (Yevamos 62b), “When Rabbi Akiva’s students died and the world was desolate, he went to the south of Eretz Yisrael and started over again!”

Rabbi Akiva clearly had unbelievable resilience. No matter how great a disaster he suffered, he would find a silver lining in the darkest cloud. He would discover something positive, something to give him new hope, and this would give him the strength and the confidence to start all over again. “All is not lost!” he would exult when he had lost just about everything.

Rabbi Akiva lived through the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. The Talmud relates (Makkos 24a) that several Sages were walking past the ruined Beis Hamikdash and saw a fox emerging from the site of the Holy of Holies. They all burst into tears, except for Rabbi Akiva, who began to laugh. “Why do you laugh?” they asked him. He replied, “Because if the prophecy of destruction has come true so literally, then the prophecy of redemption will also come true literally.”

This ability to find the glimmer of light in the deepest darkness, to find the positive, the spark of hope, in the worst of times, made Rabbi Akiva singularly attuned to the mitzvah of loving others. He – more than anyone else – was able to see the worth in all people and love them for it.

The Baal Shem Tov give us an additional insight into the concept of loving your neighbor “as you do yourself.” When a person gets up in the morning and takes stock of himself, he thinks, “I am basically a good person. I have my faults and foibles; I am not perfect. But I am more good than bad.” This, the Baal Shem Tov says, is how we must evaluate our neighbor. He is basically good. I can overlook his faults.

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