Rebukes And Responses

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

Commentary on Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22

May I have a word with you? The opening words of the fifth book of the Torah begin simply enough, “These are the words that Moses spoke (diber) to all Israel.”   The Rabbis of the ancient Midrash Sifre Devarim note that every place the Bible uses the verb ‘daber‘ indicates harshness or rebuke, whereas the Hebrew word ‘amar‘ conveys a sense of praise.

Why, then, did Moses ‘diber’ to the Jews?  Why did he speak harshly to them on the border of the Promised Land? Because his final speech to them, the culmination of his long life of service to them and to God, consisted of chastisement–reminding them that they fell far short of the sacred standards embodied in the Torah and Jewish tradition.

And did the people resent Moses’ apparent harshness, as most of us would?  Did people say, “He never gives us a break,” or note that even at the end, he was still haranguing them, unable to focus, even for a moment, on their virtues and better natures? Apparently not.

The speech is, after all, dutifully recorded in the Torah and read every year in synagogues around the world.  And when Moses concluded his words and then went off to die, the Jewish people mourned his loss, even as we still keenly feel his absence today.

Can you imagine what it would be like if a Rabbi, at a dinner honoring 25 years of service with a particular synagogue, rather than dwelling on warm memories, started to list all of the congregants’ flaws over the past two-and-a-half decades?  Can you imagine how resentful and bitter most of us would feel?

Rabbi Tarfon, a great sage of the Mishnah, read this passage and sadly observed, “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is fit to rebuke others.  For if one says to another, ‘Remove the mote from between your eyes,’ the reply invariably is, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.'”

No one in Rabbi Tarfon’s time was exempt from the very faults they would point out in others–hardly role models capable of rebuking their neighbors with disinterest.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said, “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.”  Rabbi Eleazar observed that people no longer accepted criticism as an act of love.  Instead of listening openly to a description of how they had acted inappropriately and then working to modify their behavior to remove that flaw, the object of rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error.

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.

Reprinted with permission from American Jewish University.

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