Parshas Devarim #1
“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?Click Here To Respond
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.