This week’s parsha discusses the mitzvah to rebuke your fellow Jew when you see him sin, in order that he will improve his ways (19:17). Now, one can find this mitzvah difficult to accept even in theory, let alone to perform in practice. Firstly, how can I bring myself to tell someone outright that what he is doing is wrong and that he must change his ways? Secondly, how can I ever hope to actually succeed in convincing someone else to improve their ways? If you rebuke someone, odds are they will completely disregard your words, your relationship with them will be damaged, and it may even cause them to act worse. This leaves us in a predicament; how can we properly fulfill this biblical obligation, which is mandatory even in today’s day and age *?
The Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933) was once traveling throughout Europe to sell his seforim (books), when he stopped at a Jewish inn for the night. As he sat in the corner of the dining room waiting for dinner, he saw a sorry sight. A big burly Jew barged in, sat himself down at a table and demanded a huge meal. He was gruff with the waitress, made rude comments to the people at neighboring tables, and cursed loudly when anyone said something that was not to his liking. When his meal came, he noisily wolfed it down without reciting any blessings, washed it down with a big mug of ale, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
The Chofetz Chaim began approaching him, when the innkeeper quickly intercepted him. “Don’t even attempt to talk to him. That guy was conscripted into the czar’s army at age seven and he was not let out until twenty-five years later. People have tried to change his ways, but he’s stubborn. It seems he missed the stage of developing his manners or his Judaism.”
Unperturbed, the Chofetz Chaim pulled up a chair and said to him: “Is it true that you were drafted into the czar’s army for 25 years?” The burly man grunted in affirmation. “You must be such a holy individual! I can’t imagine what it took for you to retain your Jewish identity. Countless times they must have beaten you for not converting to Christianity! You never even had a chance to study Torah and yet you held on! You’ve been through the worst of conditions and yet you stayed strong! I wish I would have the merits you must have! I wish I could have your portion in the World to Come!”
By this time, the hardened brute was crying like a baby and kissing the hand of the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim continued, “There are just a few things you probably need to work on, but if you could improve in those areas, there would be no one like you!” After this, the man who was previously never affected by the years of people rebuking him became a changed man. For years he remained a close student of the Chofetz Chaim and truly lived up to his true potential. (Story by R’ Leiby Burnham)
The difficulty that we have with the mitzvah of rebuke lies in our misunderstanding of it; the mitzvah of rebuke is not to be judgemental and cruel to a fellow Jew. Rather, as demonstrated by the Chofetz Chaim, it is to help every Jew with their Judaism in a warm, sincere and caring manner **, and to never allow a fellow Jew who is struggling with an aspect of their Judaism to ever be ignored.
As the pasuk states “Do not rebuke a scorner, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you” (Mishlei 9:8). Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, otherwise known as the Shelah (1564-1630), tells us that this verse does not necessarily refer to two different people, but rather to two different ways of correcting someone. “Rebuke a scorner” means that if you call him a “scorner”, i.e if you point out his negative habits and everything that he does wrong, he will hate you. However, “rebuke a wise man” means that if you call him “wise”, i.e if you point out his otherwise good qualities that make his current behavior unbecoming and encourage him to live up to the potential that you see in him, he will love you!
Such rebuke is arguably more relevant, important and effective in this generation than ever before!
The purpose of rebuke, which can only be accomplished when delivered with genuine concern and warmth, is to improve the behavior of our fellow Jew and ultimately to improve the spirituality of our entire nation. It is important to note, however, that there is another more subtle and arguably even more powerful way of bringing about such improvement:
R’ Yisrael Salanter commented that when he was younger, he was ambitious and tried to improve the spirituality of all the people in his entire city. He failed. He then tried to improve the members of his neighborhood, but again, he failed. He then set his sights on improving his family, but once again, he found it nearly impossible to change the behavior of others. After some time, he decided to change tactics and began to focus all of his energy on improving himself instead… and he succeeded. What happened next was remarkable; after some time, his positive example inspired his family… then his neighborhood… and eventually his entire city!
We can all contribute to improving the behavior of our wonderful nation. When we see someone doing something wrong, we can point out their positive attributes and encourage them in a caring and loving manner to reach their full potential. Better yet, we can proactively improve those around us by working on ourselves and leading by example. So, the next time you’re faced with a stressful situation or other character challenges, think to yourself: how would I want my family and friends to act in this scenario? Then, seize the opportunity and lead by example!
*- Primarily, the biblical mitzvah of rebuke still applies nowadays. The Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvos (Aseh 205) considers this a Biblical Mitzvah, and the Sefer HaChinuch (239) adds that it applies to all Jews for all times.
**- If one rebukes in a manner that will not be accepted by the sinner, he has not fulfilled his obligation whatsoever (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 29:16 and Gemara Yevamos 65b)