"Moses Pleading with Israel" by Providence Lithograph Company, ca. 1907
"Moses Pleading with Israel" by Providence Lithograph Company, ca. 1907

The Torah’s blueprint for making a just rebuke heard

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

Each of us has, at one or many points in our lives, been on the receiving end of a rebuke. Maybe it came from a teacher, a friend, an employer, a colleague, a parent, an adversary or a total stranger. Maybe it was warranted. Maybe it wasn’t.

Most of us have also likely dished out some form of rebuke in our lifetimes. Some people make a regular habit of it; others find it very hard to do. Many reserve their harshest critiques for themselves and let most other folks off the hook. Others turn the harsh finger of criticism only on others and give themselves a pass for pretty much everything.

Have you ever offered a particularly effective rebuke? Have you ever received a rebuke that made you really stop, reflect and change course? If the answer is yes to either, what was it that made the rebuke work?

This is the Season of Rebuke. This week we hear the third of the traditional “Haftarot of Rebuke” ahead of Tisha B’Av when Jews commemorate the loss of the Great Temples in 586 BCE and 70 C.E. and the exile, displacement, suffering and death that ensued.

This week, we also begin the Book of Deuteronomy/Devarim. Moses, having found the voice that eluded him at the start of his journey, recaps the circuitous wanderings, occasional triumphs and numerous blunderings of the people as they staggered about in the wilderness for two generations.

Much of the story isn’t pretty. Yet unlike the many earlier, noisy scenes of kvetching and hollering, this time the people are quiet. Moses, in the final weeks of his extraordinary life, has earned the right to speak. And by golly, the people will listen.

In his reprimands to the Israelites, Moses fulfills one of the Torah’s most essential mitzvot, and perhaps one of its most difficult to follow: “Do not hate your kinsman in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow and bear no sin because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17)

The Torah knows that when we bottle up emotions for too long, they will eventually spill out, often with painful consequences.

Our ancestors may have promised to “do and understand” God’s commands, but how to dispense tochecha, or rebuke, so crucial and so opaque, has really left us guessing. Though not all grievances should be aired, the Torah knows that when we bottle up emotions for too long, they will eventually spill out, often with painful consequences. (Think of Moses shouting at the people and striking the rock after Miriam’s death a few weeks ago.)

Moses can finally speak freely and passionately, and in the right time and place. For the rest of us, knowing when to speak and how to speak words of rebuke is a mighty puzzle indeed.

The rabbis delve deeply into how we might reprimand with righteousness. It is a clear mandate, stated in the Torah with emphasis and a strong imperative. But it nonetheless requires discernment, experience, wisdom, courage and the rare ability to examine one’s own deeds and behaviors to have a glimmer of a chance at success. Moses had all of that, making him the perfectly imperfect paragon of “the Rebuker.”

Tochecha, the rabbis agree, was never intended to shame or embarrass (BT Arakhin 16b). Its purpose was always to safeguard dignity and respect, as the censured person is encouraged to reform, improve and embrace the ways of righteousness. Rebuke was to be done in private, with the person under scrutiny given every chance to explain, apologize and begin anew. This is the best kind of reproach, in the estimation of the Sages and certainly in my own experience.

If a communal tochecha was necessary, the rebuker was to speak to the collective rather than single out individuals. Moses spoke to “el kol Yisrael — all of Israel” (Deut. 1:1) not to assign them equal blame for the misdeeds of the past, but to remind us that we all misstep and stumble and that a very few people can tip the balance of history.

Seems to me that these days, there’s a whole lot of rebuking going on, and to little avail. It seemed that way to the great rabbis too. “Rabbi Tarfon once said (also Arachin 16b), ‘I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who can receive rebuke. Because if one says to another: remove the splinter from between your eyes (i.e., cease doing a minor infraction), the other says to him: then remove the beam from between your eyes! (i.e., you have done worse!)’ Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria opined: ‘I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who even knows how to rebuke correctly (i.e., without causing embarrassment).’”

The beginning of Devarim (and Moses’ admonitions), always precedes Tisha B’Av, and with profound effect. The Romans may have burned down the Temple, but rabbinic consensus was that the society around the Temple fell due to indecency, wanton shaming and the failure of righteous people to properly rebuke and defend what they knew to be moral and right (BT Shabbat 119b).

Rebuke is hard to give and harder still to take. But it is absolutely necessary to move our world forward to a better and more just place. May the words of Proverbs 28:23 somehow be realized: “One that rebukes another shall in the end find more favor.” May our Season of Rebuke yield speedily to the Season of Comfort, Healing and Hope.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].