“Giving Proper Reproof”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Kedoshim, we encounter the well-known Biblical dictum recorded in Leviticus 19:17: “Lo tis’nah et ah’chee’chah bil’va’veh’cha. Ho’chay’ach to’chee’ach et ah’mee’teh’cha, v’lo tee’sah ah’lav chayt.” You shall not hate your brother in your heart. Reprove your neighbor and bear no guilt because of him.

As opposed to most other legal codes, the Torah is concerned not only with people’s actions but also with their attitudes. Wrong feelings as well as wrong acts can be very destructive, and bottled-up resentment may lead to great harm. Consequently, the Torah instructs us to “reprove” our neighbors. If one has a justified complaint, do not brood over it. It is far better to state it forthrightly.

At first blush, this positive Torah commandment seems to justify much of the prevailing contemporary attitude–if one has a complaint, speak up, get it out of your system, sock it to him, tell the creep off, blast him between the eyes. And yet, as we study the laws governing proper reproof, we see that this is far from the Torah’s intent or practice. In fact, our sages declare that anyone who embarrasses another person publicly loses his portion in the World to Come (Avot 3:15). Furthermore, based on an allusion in the Sifra, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105), the foremost commentator on the Bible, explains that proper reproof actually means, “rebuke him, but do not shame him publicly.” The Rabbis say, with extraordinary insight, that just as it is a mitzvah to say things that are heard, so is it a mitzvah not to say things that will not be listened to (Yevamot 65b). If we know that the person whom we are trying to reprove cannot or will not hear what we are saying, it is preferable to avoid reproof, since doing so will only engender greater stress and enmity.

Both the English word “reproof” and the Hebrew word “to’cha’cha” underscore that the purpose of reproof is to “prove” to the perpetrator that what he has done is wrong and encourage him to mend his ways. The point of reproof is not to tell the person off, but to enlighten the sinful person so that he/she understands that such behavior is not acceptable. There should be no element of vengeance in reproof, it is rather an issue of education and enlightenment. But of course not everyone wishes to be, or can be, enlightened, and not everyone can hear reproof. Consequently, the Torah instructs those who wish to give reproof to be careful and very gentle.

Jewish tradition provides insightful guidelines for those who wish to admonish others. The person who gives reproof must be certain that he or she is not guilty of the same or a similar trespass. As the Talmud says (Baba Bathra 60a), “K’shoht atz’m’chah,”–improve yourself before you improve others. The Talmud in Baba Bathra records an insightful story concerning the sage, Rabbi Yannai, who owned a tree whose branches overhung the public thoroughfare. One day, a case came before him regarding a person who owned a tree that similarly hovered over public property, and the public demanded that it be removed. After hearing the complaint, R’ Yannai instructed the litigants to return the next day, at which time he would render judgment. In the meantime, R’ Yannai had his own tree cut down. The very next day, R’ Yannai told the owner of the tree that his tree must be cut down because its presence prevents travelers from comfortably traversing the thoroughfare. The owner of the tree protested to R’ Yanni, “But you too have a similar tree, which blocks the public domain.” R’ Yannai then told him, “Come and see that my tree is cut down, and you will have to cut yours as well.” The rabbis ask why R’ Yannai had not previously cut down his tree, instead of doing so only when the similar case was presented to him. They answer that R’ Yannai was under the impression that the public benefited from the shade that was given off by his tree. But when he learned that the public was hindered by the tree’s presence, he had it removed. Clearly, a person may not reprove a neighbor if he himself has a similar shortcoming.

Remarkably, our rabbis teach that the mitzvah of to’cha’cha means much more than mere reproof. In Shabbat 54b, the Talmud cites the case of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, whose cow would go out on Shabbat with a forbidden rein between her horns. The rabbis explain that the cow did not really belong to R’ Elazar ben Azaria, but since R’ Elazar did not reprove his neighbor who was the actual owner, it was considered as if he had committed the violation. Tradition teaches that anyone who has the opportunity to protest against a wrongdoing, but fails to do so, is considered as if he had personally committed the violation. Our rabbis declare that the concept of a’ray’vut–that all of Israel is responsible for one another, is much more than a mere pithy slogan. Indeed, it has profound legal implications!

R’ Ahron Soloveichik (1918-2001) in his brilliant essay, “Jew and Jew, Jew and Non Jew” states that if a Jew observes the Sabbath fully, but has an opportunity to share the Shabbat with another less observant Jew, and fails to do so, then the Shabbat of the observant Jew is incomplete. Similarly, if a Jew has an opportunity to share his kiddush with another Jew who would otherwise not make kiddush, but fails to do so, then the kiddush that was made is deemed incomplete.

To what extent must one reprove one’s neighbor? Ben Azai says, “Until he insults you.” Rabbi Joshua says, “Until he curses you.” R’ Elazar says, “Continue to reprove him until he strikes you.” (Talmud, Arachin 16b).

The Talmud declares (Yoma 9b) that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam–wanton and baseless hatred. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, 1865-1935) has written, “If we have been destroyed and the world together with us has been destroyed–because of baseless hatred, it can be rebuilt, and the world can be rebuilt as well–because of baseless, undeserved love.” The Chazon Ish (R. Abraham Isaiah Karelitz, 1878-1953) declared that since we no longer know how to give proper reproof, it is preferable not to offer reproof. But no one can say that we no longer know how to offer love, especially baseless, undeserved love. Let us determine to rebuild the world by embracing others with abundant, if undeserved, love.

May you be blessed.