Parashat D'varim

Rebukes And Responses

In Moses' final speech to the Israelites, he provides us with a model of effective rebuke.

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Rabbi Gerson Cohen, past Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, tells of the time he was a child at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.  As he and his friends were playing basketball, the game got a little rough--as sports often do.   Without warning, one of the scholars-in-residence, a Rabbi and professor of Talmud, intervened, scolding the boys that, "There is a Jewish way to play basketball.  And this is not the Jewish way."

Rabbi Cohen remembers that they were stung by the remarks, and humbled.  Instead of grumbling about it, however, they stopped their game and started a discussion about how they would try to play in the future.   As the scholar was about to walk away, he said to the kids, "How wonderful, a group of boys able to receive rebuke."

Rabbi Akiva, a contemporary of Rabbi Tarfon, added the third leg of lament to those of his colleagues. "I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke."

Pointing out someone's shortcoming or error should not be a chance for insults or a sense of superiority.  It should not become an opportunity to humiliate or gloat.  Instead, a rebuke, if properly intended and given, becomes an act of affirmation and love, an affirmation that the person is worth the effort in the first place, and a faith that he or she remains capable of improvement. Offered with love and a sense of humility, a rebuke is a gift and a challenge.

Without our friends, colleagues and families willing to point out our own errors of judgment or action, we all blind ourselves to our own faults and to those aspects of reality we don't want to see.  Each of us depends on the caring of others, their courage to articulate disappointment in our action, as the indispensable prerequisite to self-improvement and refinement.

We cannot afford to wait for the perfect, loving hero to point out our flaws.  Instead, we rely on those around us, family and friends, to act as our early warning system, pointing out moral failure and ethical obtuseness before it is too late to improve.  But when they do, we must be able to really listen.

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Rabbi Bradley Artson

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is Vice-President of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and Dean of its Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He served as a congregational rabbi in Southern California for ten years. Rabbi Artson?is the author of The Bedside Torah and co-author of a children's book, I Have Some Questions about God.