Moses offers vital lesson on rebuking with sensitivity

by Rabbi Pinchas Lipner


Devarim 1: 1-3:22

Isaiah 1: 1-27

The concept of admonishing another for wrongdoing has certainly gone out of favor in our society. It is in fact a pursuit that has become much devalued if not entirely disdained.

Perhaps we have become overly obsessed with "doing our own thing," making our own mistakes and upholding issues of privacy. Rebuke is generally seen as a negative enterprise coming from an unwholesome place.

Undoubtedly, that can be the case and often is. It may be an expression of the more base emotions within us — jealousy, insecurity or superiority. It needn't, however, be so. It can be a sincere effort born of care and concern to help another to avoid repeating destructive or painful behavior patterns.

In this week's Torah portion, we see our great teacher Moses rebuking his people out of his complete devotion to them and his boundless love and concern for their welfare and their future. They are about to take on the enormous challenges of entering the Promised Land. There is much to be learned from Moses and the example he provides about undertaking this delicate task carefully.

In the very first verse of the Torah portion, we see the extreme sensitivity of Moses. He chooses an indirect method to call the people's attention to their past sin and warn them to withstand the difficult temptations and obstacles that may lie ahead. He avoids hurting them unnecessarily by eschewing any description of the gory details of past transgressions. He only alludes to their sins by enumerating the places where the people had strayed.

Moses loved the Jewish people beyond reason. It is a major component in his being chosen by G- d to be their leader and redeemer. Moses repeatedly offered excuses and justifications for the misdeeds of his people, even arguing with G- d on their behalf.

The Talmud (Brachot 32A) suggests that Moses went so far as to hint that it was the G-d himself who enabled the sin of the Golden Calf by providing the people with an abundance of gold, the necessary wherewithal, so to speak. Moses never stopped praying on behalf of his people for their needs and for forgiveness of their sins. Such was the magnitude of Moses' love that one would be hard-pressed to even suggest anything but a pure heart motivating his admonition.

It would require remarkable cynicism to suspect him of harboring even a hint of smugness or superiority or of lording his own righteousness over his less-than-perfect nation. Indeed, we see that in the midst of the rebuke, Moses refers to the occasions in his own life when he himself appears to have missed the mark and stumbled. He doesn't hesitate to remind one and all of his own imperfections.

We can learn from this that a person who desires to admonish someone must be able to relate to him and to his humanity. He must come to the sensitive challenge with the necessary degree of humility. Moses is known to be the humblest of all men. (Numbers 12:3). His castigation doesn't suggest even a hint of ego.

From this whole episode, we may ascertain that criticism should never be offered haughtily or lightly, but always and only with the deepest regard for the feelings of others, and with the desire only to help, support and benefit the recipient.

To refrain from admonition totally, however, under any circumstances, may indicate lack of caring or involvement.

If we see someone traveling down a self-destructive or harmful road (be it physical or spiritual harm), love would dictate some action. True caring doesn't always afford the luxury of a live and let live approach.

The Torah clearly states: "You should admonish your friend" (Leviticus 19:17). Furthermore, King Solomon advises: "To them who admonish shall come delight and a good blessing shall come to them" Mishlei 24:25.

Shabbat Shalom.