Constructive Criticism

The commandment to rebuke one another teaches the importance of mutual responsibility.

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27

Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

Morality is not enough. As important as it is to build an ethical society in which no harm is tolerated, the Torah sets a higher standard: to create a holy society.

Among the many mitzvot (commandments) in this part of Vayikra [Leviticus], the book of the sanctified society, we find:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your friend, and you shall not bear sin upon him (Vayikra 19:17).

Here, we are taught about the importance of mutual responsibility. In the sanctified society, each individual has a personal interest that everyone aspires to holiness. This sometimes requires constructive criticism.

Analyzing the Verse

Many of the classic commentaries analyze the flow of ideas in this verse. Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, 12th-century France), for example, says: If you feel wronged by him, do not pretend to love him. Correct him, rather than preserve sinful feelings toward him.

Ibn Ezra (12th-century Spanish commentator) and Ramban (Nachmanides) add that v’lo tissa alav chet–and you shall not bear sin upon him–provides a rationale and a motive: It is possible that your feelings are groundless, but you will not know unless you confront him. But, if your concerns are justified, you will bear some responsibility for his continued wrong, because you could have corrected him. On the other hand, when you reprove him he will apologize to you, or–if his sin was against Hashem–he will confess, and he will be forgiven.

Ohr HaChaim (R. Chaim ben Moshe Ibn-Attar, 1696-1743) connects the first and last parts of the verse: do not maintain his acts as a sin; do not resolve that what happened was due to his evil intentions, but rather give him the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, do not withhold rebuke from him, lest he retain his burden of sin if he needs to repent. 

Rashi (based on the Talmud in Tractate Arachin 16b), understands v’lo, not as "and you shall not," but as "however:" even while rebuking him, you shall not bear sin upon him, by embarrassing him. From here we learn that it is forbidden to shame a fellow Jew.

An incident in Tractate Yevamot 49b provides contrast. Wicked King Menashe called for the execution of Yeshaya (Isaiah) as a false prophet, pointing to a number of apparent contradictions between his prophecy and the Torah. Yeshaya knew how to respond, but realized that the king would not listen. Moreover, what began as a sin born of ignorance would become a willing transgression.

Yeshaya decided, therefore, not to defend himself, so he escaped and hid inside a cedar tree. A woodsman cut down the tree, and when the saw reached the prophet’s mouth, he died, which was Divine punishment for saying, "And in the midst of a nation of unclean lips I dwell" (Yeshaya 6:5).

The prophet was punished for this denunciation, even though he had said many other harsh things about the Jewish people for which he was not punished, including, "Oh, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil-doers, corrupting children" (1:4).

Rashi (in his commentary to Yevamot) says that "Oh, sinful nation" was said directly to the people, as rebuke, while "in the midst of a nation of unclean lips I dwell "was said, not to the people, but rather to himself. Sometimes harsh words of condemnation are justified, but only when addressed directly to those needing correction. Otherwise, the one who says them deserves punishment for purposeless grumbling.

The Miriam Incident

Another example of this is the incident of Miriam (B’midbar chapter 12), as explained by Rashi. Miriam judged that her brother Moshe was acting improperly towards his wife Tzippora. She spoke about this to Aharon, and Hashem punished her with tzara’at (leprosy) for speaking lashon hara (slander, gossip). Even if her evaluation of Moshe’s behavior had been valid, it  served no constructive purpose for her to speak about it to Aharon. Instead of complaining behind Moshe’s back, she should have confronted him directly.

R. Eliakum Getzel of Dvinsk (d. 1912) says this directive is conveyed in the verse, You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your friend, and you shall not bear sin upon him: It does not say "before him," meaning in his presence; because that is justified as rebuke; on the other hand, upon him, which implies that it is about him, and said not in his presence, is mere grumbling. Do not bear a sin by complaining about him rather than protesting to him.

Rashi, in his comments on our verse and in Yevamot, provides two stages in the process of rebuke, as delineated by Rambam (Hilchot De’ot 6:8): At first, one is obligated to rebuke in private, with soft language and gentle words, so that the person will not be ashamed. However, if he does not thereby retract, it may then be necessary to use harsher means–including excoriating words–if it will restore him to proper behavior. 

R. Eliakum Getzel highlights another insight into the parameters of rebuke from this incident, as alluded to in our verse. The prophet Yeshaya correctly refrained from giving rebuke he knew would be disregarded, and so he prevented the king’s sin from escalating.

We are taught (Yevamot 65b): Just as it is an obligation for one to say words of criticism that will be heeded, so is it an obligation for one not to say words of criticism that will not be heeded. This is implied in the words "you shall surely rebuke your friend, v’lo tissa alav chet but you shall not raise sin upon him," that is, increase the sin, by admonishing him with words you know will be rejected; then, he will sin even more, and intentionally, out of spite. 

Rebuke, to be effective, should emanate from love. When it succeeds, it increases love. A brotherhood of mutual accountability is then created–the Torah’s ideal of a sanctified society.

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