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Welcome to our Shabbos Table!

We hope you enjoy this selection of short divrei Torah, presented to family and guests at our Shabbos table as a springboard for discussion. Each one is followed by a question. The responses shared at our table are enlightening, entertaining, and always thought-provoking.

Please share them at your own Shabbos table, and send us your most interesting responses. A selection of the best will be posted on the website, and eventually, included in a book. To respond, click on "Click here to respond" or email us at
responses@ourtable.org.

Parshas Devarim #1

Careful Rebuke

“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, in the Aravah desert, opposite Suf, between Paran and between Tofel and Lavan and Chatzeros and Di Zahav” (Devarim 1:1).

Moshe knew that his death was imminent. It was time for him to part from the people he had led for so many years, and prepare them for the future. He reviewed the entire Torah with them and blessed them, but before that, he rebuked them for the sins the nation had committed in the desert. While Moshe did deliver the reproof, it was carefully worded to preserve the nation’s dignity: he listed the names of the places where they had angered Hashem, as an indirect reference to the unfortunate events that had taken place in these locations (Devarim 1:1, Rashi).

In his introduction to Sefer Devarim, Rabbeinu Bechayye writes that people are different, and their response to criticism will also be different. Some are more receptive to rebuke, others less so. What is acceptable to one will be annoying to another. Even more so, most people do not want to hear reproof at all. Already in the times of the Gemara, rebuke was a complex issue: “Rabbi Tarfon said, I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who accepts rebuke… Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to give rebuke” (Erchin 16b). It may not be until a much later date that the recipient of rebuke might

come to appreciate it (see Mishle 28:23, cited by Rabbeinu Bechayye).

When to Speak Up

Chazal teach that it is a mitzvah to administer rebuke, but it can also be a mitzvah to refrain from speaking when the words of reproof will be rejected (Yevamos 65b).

As my friend “Dov” learned, it is not always possible to anticipate other people’s reactions, and know when and when not to speak up. Dov walked into the beis medrash of a major yeshivah on the Seventeenth of Tamuz, an important fast day. He was shocked to find one of the older students there eating a sandwich as he looked into an open sefer. Dov approached the young man and asked, very carefully, if he knew that today was the Seventeenth of Tamuz, and that it was a fast day.

Instead of answering the question, the young man started talking about a topic which appeared to have no connection to either the fast or his sandwich. He told Dov that when someone is disturbed over a bad dream, he recites a special prayer at the time of Birkas Kohanim, asking Hashem to transform the dream into a blessing, and not a curse. The prayer includes a request to transform three categories of dreams: “a dream that I dreamed about myself; a dream that others dreamed about me; and a dream that I dreamed about others.”

The student asked Dov, “Why isn’t there a fourth category – “a dream that others dreamed about others?” Why not say a prayer for their dreams as well? He answered his own question: “Because it’s none of your darn business!” Whatever his reasons for eating on a fast day, he had no intention of explaining himself to Dov!

Question for Discussion:

When did you reprove a wrongdoer, or refrain from reproving him? What made you decide either way?

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Responses:

Professor Yizhak Ahren, a professor of psychology at the University of Cologne, found that a wrongdoer simply may not be interested in accepting rebuke, even if he is clearly in the wrong.

“I saw a student xeroxing a book I had written – not just a few pages, but the entire volume. At first I was flattered by her interest in my book, but then I realized that she really should have bought a copy. I told her, “Young lady, what you are doing is improper and illegal.”

Surprised, she retorted, “What’s wrong?”

I explained that while it is permissible to xerox a few pages, copying an entire book takes away from the author’s royalties from the sale of the book.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “He’ll never know.”

I pointed out that causing another person damage is wrong, even if he is not aware of it… and in this case, the injured party is aware.

She looked at the name on the title page, and then looked at me. “You’re not Yizhak Ahren, are you?” Then, instead of apologizing, she said, “It’s nice to meet the author of the textbook I’ll be reading for my course!”

In all, the responses to our question about adminstering rebuke ranged from a fifteen-year-old girl who always reproves others for their misdeeds, to a sixty-year-old man who never does. Having once seen the negative impact rebuke can have, he gave it up entirely.

Every case is different, and depends on many factors. What is being done wrong, who is doing it, and how often? Who is affected by his actions? What, if any, is the relationship between the one administering the rebuke and the one receiving it, and how likely is he to be open to accepting it? Our conclusion was that there is no one answer, and no hard and fast rule.

Parshas Devarim #2

Lost Opportunity

“And you replied and said to me, we have sinned to Hashem. We will go up [to the Land] and we will fight, [doing] all that Hashem our G-d commanded us. And every man of you donned his weapons, and you dared to go up to the mountain. And Hashem said to me, tell them, do not go up and do not fight for I am not in your midst, so that you will not be stricken before your enemies. And I spoke to you and you did not listen, and you disobeyed the word of Hashem and acted defiantly, and you went up to the mountain. The Emori who live on that mountain went out to you and chased you, like bees do, and they struck you in Seir, until Chormah. And you returned and cried before Hashem, and Hashem did not heed your voice and did not listen to you” (Devarim 1:41-45).

In Sefer Devarim, Moshe reviewed the entire Torah with the Jewish people before his death. He prefaced this review by recounting some of the events of the nation’s sojourn in the desert, and rebuked them for the sins that had been committed. One of these was the Sin of the Spies, which had halted the plans for the nation’s immediate, effortless acquisition of Eretz Yisrael. Instead, they would spend forty years in the desert, and it would be their children who entered Eretz Yisrael (Bamidbar 13-14, Devarim 1:22-40).

The next day, the nation thought that it still might not be too late to turn the situation around. They hoped that by admitting that they had sinned and showing that they were eager to move ahead with the conquest of the Holy Land, even strapping on their weapons for battle, Hashem would forgive them and allow them to go forward. Moshe warned them that it would not work – Hashem would not be with them. One group, who came to be known as the Maapilim, insisted on trying to force their way in on their own. They were killed by the Emori as they tried to scale a mountain leading to Eretz Yisrael (Bamidbar 14:40-45, Devarim 1:41-45).

The Jews had confessed their sin and wanted to make amends. Why were there no second chances?

Now or Never

The Ralbag offers an interesting insight into this question. He writes that when something positive comes our way, we should welcome it immediately. Otherwise, we are likely to lose it. For the Jews in the desert, the opportunity to enter Eretz Yisrael had been available, ready and waiting. They failed to grasp it at the right time, and it was lost. It would be another forty years, and another generation, until it returned.

Rabbi Joshua Fishman, Executive Vice President of Torah Umesorah, related a story about the Baal Shem Tov’s successor, the Maggid of Mezritch, which highlights the concept of lost opportunity. On his way back from the mikveh one Friday afternoon, the Maggid picked up on a scent that was material in origin, but, as he sensed, imbued with spirituality. He followed it to the simple home of an elderly woman who was preparing gribenes (fried chicken skin) for Shabbos. He understood that there was something special about this food: it was permeated with both the honor of Shabbos, and the piety of the shochet who had slaughtered the chicken. He asked the elderly woman if he could taste her Shabbos gribenes.

The woman told him that she really had none to spare. Her husband and Shabbos guests would all be looking forward to this treat, and she could not give any of it away. It was only after the Maggid left her house that the woman realized what she had done. The Maggid of Mezritch had asked to sample her Shabbos cooking, and she had said no! If only she had been wise enough to give him a taste of her gribenes, the pot would surely have been abundantly blessed.

She picked up the pot of gribenes and ran after the Maggid. When she caught up with him, she held out the pot and begged him to please take not a small taste, but the entire pot.

The Maggid shook his head and refused the proffered pot. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I no longer have an appetite…” The window of opportunity had opened briefly, but now it had swung closed and the moment was gone (Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky, Parshas Devarim, “Paradise Lost”).

Question for Discussion:

What is an opportunity you had in the past which you allowed to slip by, and now regret?

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