The entire book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is essentially Moshe’s farewell speech to the Jewish people. Having rescued us from Egypt, been the conduit through which the Torah was received and communicated, and having led us for 40 years through the desert, Moshe now readies himself for his death. The Jewish people are about to finally enter the Land of Israel without its loyal leader.
Moshe begins his parting farewell with some harsh words – this week’s parsha is dominated by Moshe’s extensive recollection of the many blunders the Jewish people made in the desert, which included idolatry, ignoring G-d’s instructions and rebelling against Moshe himself. This may seem a strange way tobegin an emotional parting. But in truth, rebuking others is actually a concept which finds positive expression in Judaism; one of the 613 mitzvos is to point out the error of someone’s ways when you see him/her behaving inappropriately1. In fact, one who fails, if able, to dish out the necessary words of rebuke is actually considered as responsible for the act in question as the person who actually performs it1.
This ‘mitzvah’ seems likely to produce extremely disturbing consequences. Is the ideal really for every one of us to be constantly looking to point out the error of others ways, and highlight their moral weaknesses vis-à-vis our own? This hardly sounds like a great recipe for a close-knit community characterised by respect for others and their needs?! And if, despite the worrying ramifications it seems to allow for, Judaism does call for such constant interference, Moshe’s rebuke seems to fall woefully short of the mark in terms of timing and strength. It is only now, years after a number of these incidents have taken place, that Moshe is finally giving the Jewish people their collective telling off. And even now it seems that he fails to make the point as forcefully as necessary – Moshe chooses only to implicitly allude to the collective failings rather than speak them out explicitly1. Through understanding Moshe’s motivations and actions, we will be able to understand the true nature of the mitzvah to rebuke another and its likely consequences.Moshe specifically waited until the moments close to his death to reprimand the Jewish people, as Yaakov had before admonishing Reuven, his oldest son1.Yaakov had been motivated by a desire to avoid humiliating Reuven. Moshe too sought to ensure minimal humiliation for the Jewish people by ensuring they wouldn’t have to continue to constantly see him face-to-face and experience the shame and self-disgust that would be stirred every time they did so1. Similarly, Moshe, when listing all of the Jewish people’s discrepancies at the beginning of the parsha, did so only by way of allusion to minimise the embarrassment this would cause1. In this way it the message was clearly communicated without having to rub salt in to the wounds.
This emphasis on avoiding humiliating the ‘rebuked’ party is two-fold; firstly humiliating another human being, unless in extreme mitigating circumstances, is
totally prohibited in Jewish law – according to some legal opinions1 one is actually obligated to give up one’s life rather than embarrass someone! Secondly if
the rebuke is likely to lead to shame and embarrassment the receiver is likely to simply reject and ignore it, rather than admit their mistake and face up to the
consequences. This defeats the whole purpose of the rebuke.
What emerges then, is a refined and radically altered understanding of the nature of this mitzvah to highlight another’s mistakes. The whole purpose of
reproaching another human being is not to express a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, but to assist them in a sincere and loving way where one’s sole motivation is the
good of the corrected party1. The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva was constantly rebuked by one of his friends and colleagues, and as a result his love and
respect for that friend only increased1.
The most committed friend, parent or leader is not simply someone who will stand by idly whilst those they are closest to struggle. The person who compliments
us on anything and everything we do or say is not really serving our interests and needs, but avoiding helping us deal with our issues when we most need help.
The clearest sign that someone actually cares about our welfare and success is when they are prepared to confront us on those occasions when we are falling
short. Obviously this needs to be done in a highly sensitive and non-humiliating way, but it must when appropriate be done. Similarly when someone sensitively,
and motivated by a deep sense of concern for our own well-being, points out our own shortcomings, we should be ready, willing, and ultimately thankful to
receive their input.
With the lessons gained from the subtleties of Moshe’s message, it is clear that alerting someone to their shortcomings, and being alerted in the correct way is
actually a vital characteristic of a morally conscientious community of concerned citizens who really care about each other.
1 See Vayikra 19.17 and the Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvos positive mitzvos #205, Sefer HaChinuch #239
1 See Rambam, hilchos Deos 6.7
1 This seems unsatisfactory however you look at it; if the message was understood why not just express it properly? And if it was not to be understood when only hinted to, why make it at all?
1 Bereishis 49.3
1 See Rashi 1.3 who quotes the Medrash Sifri which provides this (and other) explanation(s).
1 See Rashi 1.1
1 See Tosafos TB Sotah 10b (Noach Lo L’Adam), and R’ Yona on Avos 3.6
1 A proof of this is that there is no mitzvah to rebuke someone who is beyond the moral pale by virtue of their entrenched commitment to an immoral lifestyle. (See Aderes Eliyahu, parshas Kedoshim, and Biyur Halacha, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 608.2)
1 Arachin 16b