Parashat D'varim

Gentle Rebuke Can Lead To Return

Moses' sensitive rebuke of the Israelites teaches us that we can always return and renew our relationship with God and religion.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

Parashat D'varim begins with the phrase, "These are the words that Moses spoke unto all Israel…." Moses delivers words of reproof, reminding the Children of Israel of their fathers' wrongdoings during their desert wanderings. Yet instead of going into the details of every sin, Moses merely mentions the places in which the sins took place.

If these were words of reproof, meant to make an impression on the Children of Israel, shouldn't the sins and consequences of those sins have been spoken about more fully? Rashi, the medieval commentator, answers this by acknowledging that these were words of reproof, and that Moses merely alluded to the sins "out of respect to Israel," so as not to embarrass them.

The technique that Moses used teaches us a very important lesson. Each person is responsible for his fellow Jew. Thus, when A sees B doing something very wrong, he has an obligation to do something about it. Reproof is not merely venting anger and frustration, but rather, as Rabbi Nachman says, it is "to bring out the beautiful fragrance within your fellow Jew." Each person has the potential to be either a great tzaddik, a righteous person, or a rasha, an evil person. The purpose of reproof is to help someone get to the right path or prevent him or her from going astray. The right kind of reproof helps to bring out that 'beautiful fragrance' in each person.

There is, however, a very specific way to reprove. The great scholar Rabbi Akiva once said, "I would be really surprised if there is anyone in this generation who can give reproof" (Babylonian Talmud, Erkhin 16b). The purpose of this statement is that Rabbi Akiva recognized how difficult it is to give effective and constructive criticism with sensitivity.

This teaches us that we must be careful to mind how we speak to others. Seemingly "unimportant" words can create or destroy relationships. If we must mind how we speak to each other generally, how much more so when we try to give constructive criticism to a friend! We must, therefore, realize that there is a time and place for everything. One must understand to whom to give reproof, what to say, where to say it, and of course, when to remain silent. We must always be careful not to degrade or embarrass another. A consistent tenet of Judaism is being sensitive to others, and treating those around you the way you would like to be treated.

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