"NOW LOOK WHAT YOU'VE DONE" REBUKING YOUR FRIEND

 

The Torah tells us (Vayikra 19:17): "You should not hate your brother in your heart; your shall surely rebuke your friend, and not bear for him a sin." In this verse, we are challenged to do something extremely difficult tell someone dear to us that they have erred in their ways. However, as we will develop here, the commandment to rebuke another Jew is intended not as a means of providing some people with a moral high ground over their neighbors, but rather as a means of pulling people closer together.

First, we should make note of a distinction made by the Malbim. He notes that there is a difference between "mussar" (exhortation) and "hochacha" (rebuke). The former refers to words said about the future, while the latter deals with the past, with actions already done and sins already committed. It is within this definition that we must appreciate the delicate nature of rebuke. It is fairly simple to tell people what they should not be doing in the future, but to point out to someone their faults and misdeeds is far more likely to result in defensiveness and possibly hostility. It is for this reason that the gemara says (Erchin 16b) that our generation (meaning the time of the gemara, and certainly in today's brazen society) no longer has anyone who can correctly deliver rebuke. Even more than that, there is no one is today's society who knows how to properly accept rebuke. Rather, the general reaction is to counterattack and point out flaws in the one delivering the rebuke rather than working on one's own foibles.

To understand the nature of this law, it is highly instructive to look at the section in Vayikra that discusses it. Rashi says that "not bearing a sin" for one's friend means that when one delivers rebuke, he should take care not to do it in a way that will embarrass his friend in public. If one responds to another's sin by publicly shaming him, then one is no better than the other, and the force of the rebuke becomes lost in the subsequent humiliation. Ibn Ezra takes a slightly different approach. He feels that this mitzva is focused not on the offender but rather on the one giving rebuke. Since we are commanded not to hate our brothers in our hearts (i.e. privately and without his knowledge), we thus are instructed to be candid and let others know when we feel that they have done wrong. Failure to do so, notes Ibn Ezra, leads to the last part of the verse, that the feelings against this individual will fester and eventually you will come to suspect them in general and thus you will sin as a result of them by suspecting them falsely of further sin. One should not be timid in speaking openly to his fellow Jew, as the results will only be detrimental to all parties involved. Ramban takes a similar view, noting that people whose nature it is to hate other people make a habit of not rebuking them. They would rather display deceitful friendship than work on creating a true bond of fraternity between themselves and the person that they despise. This, Ramban says, is what these verses speak against.

I would like to suggest that the verses offer us another nuance on this message. Verse 16 tells us not to spread tales about others and not to stand idly by while our friends are dying (as per the explanation of Rashi). Verse 18 inveighs against revenge and exhorts us to love our fellow Jews. Taken together, these three verses show us the slippery slope in interpersonal relationships that can threaten the fabric of our society one begins by spreading rumors about others, ultimately comes to hate that person, and finally turns vengeful. Thus, the Torah provides us with the antidote rebuke. As much as a person may hate another individual, if they follow the Torah's advice and articulate their feelings, they will have taken a major step towards correcting their animosity. Rebuke can serve not only to let someone know what they are doing wrong, but also as a cathartic experience for the rebuker with regard to his own feelings.

However, just as important as giving rebuke is knowing the limits of doing so. The gemara in Bava Metzia 31a learns from the double language of the verse ("hochei'ach tochi'ach") that a person should rebuke his friend as much as it takes to get him to change his behavior. Furthermore, the gemara notes that rebuke can go not only from a teacher to his student, but a student may rebuke his teacher as well (Malbim also notes this point). This last detail very clearly indicates that what we are talking about here is not screaming "sinner!" but rather a gentle and caring approach which is based on a mutual respect and desire on the part of each individual to improve their behavior and the behavior of those around them. However, the gemara in Yevamot 65b cites the verse in Mishlei 9:8, which states that one should not rebuke a slacker lest he come to hate you. Clearly, if rebuke is going to be viewed as a personal attack and not as an expression of true concern (and certainly if it is issued as an attack), then its effects will likely be negative and will only serve to worsen the situation.

In this vein, there are those who pick up on the verse's use of the term "friend." They suggest that if a person is not considered to be a "friend" in halachic terms, meaning that he has demonstrated that he desires to sin as a way of life, then we can be sure that no rebuke will be effective and one does not have to attempt to do so. This is in line with what Rambam writes (Hilchot De'ot 6:7) that anyone who could have given rebuke and thus stopped a sin is held accountable for that sin. However, the flip side of this idea is that if one could not have done anything, then we do not penalize him for any sin later committed by his fellow Jew.

Rambam then discusses the idea of publicly rebuking another Jew. He writes that the part of the verse that tells us not to be sin as a result of our friend means that one should not rebuke them in such a way that is sinful. Similar to the view of Rashi, Rambam rules that since one who embarrasses his friend is compared to one who has committed murder, one may thus not public lambaste his friend over a private affair (I would suggest that this is connected to the previous verse "do not stand over your friend's blood" could be a reference to publicly embarrassing someone, since when a person is embarrassed the blood rushes to their face. Thus, as much as it is important to rebuke our fellow Jews, it is equally important to remember that this limit applies). However, Rambam writes that if the matter at hand is not one of interpersonal relationships but rather an issue between man and God, then one should make a public affair of the matter, similar to what all of the prophets did in their condemnations of the sinful ways of the Jewish people.

This last statement of Rambam is very tricky for us to deal with today. Jewish society is currently at a point where we more or less expect our leaders to deliver fire and brimstone speeches denouncing the actions of others sometimes across denominations but just as often within the Orthodox camp. While it is tempting to say that everyone is defending the honor of Hashem, the results for society as a whole, manifest most in the general decline in respect for our leaders, should be alarming to us. Rebuke between colleagues and friends can be a constructive enterprise; rebuke between adversaries, phrased in the harshest of words and tones, is more often than not inflammatory. One always has to remember that the purpose of this commandment is to strengthen the bonds between Jews, and not to serve as a way of garnering points in a religious game of infighting. We should pay close attention to the views of Ibn Ezra and Ramban and see rebuke as a way of bettering ourselves, regardless of which side of it we are on.


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