“The Gentle Reproof”
(updated and revised from Devarim 5763-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week, congregations the world over finally align their Torah readings with Israel, and all begin reading the fifth book of the Torah, known as Deuteronomy, or Devarim in Hebrew.

The book of Devarim is also called Mishneh Torah, which is commonly translated as “repetition” or “review” of the Torah. This name underscores that many of the legal and historic details that were recorded in the previous four books of the Torah are repeated in this fifth book. Much of the book of Deuteronomy is a record of the exhortations, warnings, and reproofs that Moses delivers to the people, pleading with them to observe the Torah and the mitzvot, and informs them of the specific rewards and punishments that await them for the observance and non-observance of the mitzvot.

The book of Devarim often elaborates and expands on many of the mitzvot that were already mentioned in the previous books. So, for instance, the Ten Commandments are repeated once again in parashat Va’etchanan. However, of the more than 100 laws which are contained in Deuteronomy, over 70 are entirely new.

The book of Devarim begins with the words that were spoken by Moses in the last five weeks of his life and were enunciated as a last will and testament to his beloved people to teach and to reprove them. Deuteronomy 1:1 reads: אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל , These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel. According to tradition, Moses calls all the people, so that they would all be present and have the opportunity to respond to the words of reproof.

Before mentioning the actual words, however, the Torah (Deuteronomy 1:1-2), uncharacteristically, lists a relatively long list of locations where Moses spoke to the people. Moses proceeds to remind the people that he spoke with them: “…on the other side of the Jordan, by the wilderness, the Arava, opposite the sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan and Chatzerot, and Dee’zahav. It is eleven days journey from Horeb, by way of Mt. Se’ir to Kadesh-Barnea.”

Why this long list of locations? Our commentators suggest that Moses was concerned that when they entered the new land, the people would be influenced by the local idolatry of Canaan, and sin. Consequently, Moses began his words by reminding the people of the long string of sins and rebellions that marked their 40 years of travel in the wilderness. After all, if they and their parents could sin in the wilderness when they were constantly surrounded by miracles, surely, great dangers await them in the new land, where there are no constant reminders of G-d’s presence. Nevertheless, Moses does not actually mention the sins. Instead, he alludes to them indirectly by naming the places where the sins were committed.

Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad offers a lovely parable to elucidate this method of reproof. Based on the Midrash Tanchumah, he tells of a King who had a magnificent orchard, with beautiful ripe fruit. The King placed a guard dog in the orchard to protect the fruit from thieves. Once, while looking out the window, the king saw one of his trusted officers entering the orchard to eat the fruits without permission. The guard dog attacked the officer and ripped his garments. The King said in his heart, “If I say to my beloved officer that I saw him, he’ll be embarrassed, and I don’t want to embarrass him. But if I remain silent, then he will think that I did not see him, and he’ll repeat this dastardly act.” When the officer entered the King’s palace, the King casually remarked how terrible it was that the wild dog ripped the officer’s clothes. The officer clearly understood that the King saw him steal the fruits.

Similarly, not wanting to openly embarrass the people of Israel, Moses did not explicitly mention their sins, but rather mentioned the places and locations of their sins. The people took the hint and understood.

Rabbi Yisrael of Rhizin stated that a great leader, when he wants to give words of Torah and מוּסָרmussar (reproof) to his people, has to “dress” the message in stories, parables, and legends–things that speak to the heart, so that they can penetrate the heart and enter the soul.

It’s hard to believe that more than 20 years have passed since the horrendous school shooting tragedy occurred in Littleton, Colorado. Since then, many more mass shootings have occurred that have caused many to regularly expect more such tragedies, resulting in significant indifference to these heartbreaking calamities.

After Littleton, a friend sent me a copy of a piece that he had written reflecting on the broader issues of education, as seen from the Torah’s perspective and concerning the issue of giving proper reproof. It was entitled “In the Aftermath of Littleton,” and is a reflection on the shooting by two Columbine High School students that resulted in the tragic deaths of 12 students and one teacher in that Denver area High School on April 20, 1999.

In the aftermath of Littleton, we have tried a little of this and a little of that. Most of the noise was about gun control, and it failed. Then Congress passed a law allowing (not requiring but allowing) schools to post the Ten Commandments.

I’m a big fan of the Ten Commandments, but ignoring the constitutional issues, does anyone really think that putting a poster on a wall is going to create moral children? It can’t hurt. But putting the Ten Commandments on the wall is typical of our “quick‑fix” approach to the emptiness of our popular culture. It is akin to thinking that a few seminars on tolerance will eliminate hate or anger.

Being good takes work!

At the heart of morality is the sacrifice of self‑interest to a higher code. It means returning the wallet you find on the street. It means listening to someone else’s problems when you want to talk about your own. And it means subduing your anger even when you are in the right.

None of the above is easy. Walking by a poster ten times a day isn’t going to create a child with values. If you want to see why, think about the minimum level of morality, that of civility–saying “Please” and “Thank you.” Saying “Please” and “Thank you” is the minimum level, because you only have to say it, not feel it. But even that minimum level takes an immense amount of work. You have to tell a child over and over to say “Please” and “Thank you” before it becomes second nature. Think of how much work it takes to get a child to share or think of others.

Being good takes work. And Judaism may have something to tell us about how to create moral children.

Moral fitness is akin to physical fitness. No one would argue that if our kids are overweight or out of shape that we can solve the problem by putting up a poster that tells them that “Fit is better than fat.” We understand that if you want to be good at sports or music you must practice dull, repetitive tasks such as free‑throw shooting for hour after hour.

If we want our children to be good, we must work at it. To make goodness a habit, to make children or adults think of others along with themselves, takes hours of training.

Here are some ways to make it happen.

Set aside a container for charity and make a habit out of giving something every day, even if it is only spare change. Do it in a set way, say every morning before breakfast, so that it becomes a habit.

Express gratitude. Thank God for the food you eat. Thank the person at the table who cooked and served the meal. And recognize your children’s good behavior, not just the bad.

Spend time with your children. This is the hardest part. We want virtuous children, who learn virtue–without our help. It’s impossible. Quantity time is quality time. Jews have the Sabbath. On the Sabbath, the telephone “drops dead,” the television ceases, parents hug their children and bless them, eat three mandated meals together, and sing, and talk of the Bible. If you don’t have the Sabbath, take a taste of it into your life. Turn off the TV and telephone at least one night a week. Dedicate a night to the family and make it a rule that everyone stays home that night. Talk to one another. It works wonders.

Finally, be a role model. One kind deed, one act of tolerance or of consideration does more to teach children about morality than 100 lectures, or 200 trips past a poster of the Ten Commandments.

There is an old Jewish story about two fathers in synagogue. One talks during the service but lectures his child about the importance of prayer. The other father says nothing to the child but devotes his being to prayer every week. The second child grows up dedicated to prayer. The first grows up talking during services but lectures his child about the importance of prayer.

Be a role model. Do. It is your best bet if you want your children to follow.

The Torah has much to teach about so many areas of our lives. We don’t always need to come in roaring, to “sock it to ‘em,” and “bowl ‘em over.” Often, the indirect, gentler method of reproof (which means teaching) is most efficacious. It worked for Moses. It can work for us as well.

May you be blessed.

Please note: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, was observed from Thursday evening, July 29th, until Friday night, July 29th. It marked the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha b’Av. The observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Saturday night, August 6th and continues through Sunday night, August 7, 2022. Have an easy and meaningful fast.

This Shabbat, known as “Shabbat Chazon,” the Sabbath of the Vision (prophecy), is named after the opening word of the Book of Isaiah. The verses Isaiah 1-27, are read as the Haftarah (prophetic reading) on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av (the Ninth of Av).

Much of the haftarah is recited in the mournful tune of Eichah (Book of Lamentations) that is read on the night of Tisha b’Av. Deuteronomy 1:12, of the Shabbat Torah reading that begins with the word “Eichah,” is also recited to the tune of Eichah. In addition, many synagogues have the custom to sing the “L’cha Dodi” hymn on the Friday night of Shabbat Chazon to the tune of Eli Tzion, a mournful tune sung at the end of Kinot (Tisha b’Av poems) on the morning of Tisha b’Av.