Parashat Kedoshim

Constructive Criticism

The commandment to rebuke one another teaches the importance of mutual responsibility.

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Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

Morality is not enough. As important as it is to build an ethical society in which no harm is tolerated, the Torah sets a higher standard: to create a holy society.

Among the many mitzvot (commandments) in this part of Vayikra [Leviticus], the book of the sanctified society, we find:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your friend, and you shall not bear sin upon him (Vayikra 19:17).

Here, we are taught about the importance of mutual responsibility. In the sanctified society, each individual has a personal interest that everyone aspires to holiness. This sometimes requires constructive criticism.

Analyzing the Verse

Many of the classic commentaries analyze the flow of ideas in this verse. Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, 12th-century France), for example, says: If you feel wronged by him, do not pretend to love him. Correct him, rather than preserve sinful feelings toward him.

Ibn Ezra (12th-century Spanish commentator) and Ramban (Nachmanides) add that v'lo tissa alav chet--and you shall not bear sin upon him--provides a rationale and a motive: It is possible that your feelings are groundless, but you will not know unless you confront him. But, if your concerns are justified, you will bear some responsibility for his continued wrong, because you could have corrected him. On the other hand, when you reprove him he will apologize to you, or--if his sin was against Hashem--he will confess, and he will be forgiven.

Ohr HaChaim (R. Chaim ben Moshe Ibn-Attar, 1696-1743) connects the first and last parts of the verse: do not maintain his acts as a sin; do not resolve that what happened was due to his evil intentions, but rather give him the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, do not withhold rebuke from him, lest he retain his burden of sin if he needs to repent. 

Rashi (based on the Talmud in Tractate Arachin 16b), understands v'lo, not as "and you shall not," but as "however:" even while rebuking him, you shall not bear sin upon him, by embarrassing him. From here we learn that it is forbidden to shame a fellow Jew.

An incident in Tractate Yevamot 49b provides contrast. Wicked King Menashe called for the execution of Yeshaya (Isaiah) as a false prophet, pointing to a number of apparent contradictions between his prophecy and the Torah. Yeshaya knew how to respond, but realized that the king would not listen. Moreover, what began as a sin born of ignorance would become a willing transgression.

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.