Kedoshim: "I'm Just Mad About You"

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Let’s take a Bible quiz.  Which one of the following verses from this week’s Torah portions of Aharei-Mot/Kedoshim doesn’t fit with the others?

a)     “Love your neighbor as yourself”

b)    “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” 

c)     “Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart.”

d)    “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, that you not bear sin because of him”

e)     “You shall not go about as a talebearer.”  

The correct answer certainly seems to be “d,” “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, that you not bear sin because of him.”  (Leviticus 19:17).  All of the other choices are similar in that they command the high-minded, ethics-affirming principles of love and fair-treatment.   

But the commandment to “rebuke” seems entirely different.  Maybe G-d or a parent rebukes out of love and genuine concern, but if one of our neighbors, acquaintances, or a stranger rebukes us, it doesn’t feel anything like love.  And they probably don’t feel our love if we have the chutzpah to reprimand them!  

Indeed, in our “freedom”-centric, “mind your own business” culture, we are more likely to be outraged, insulted, and embittered if someone other than a parent or close relative, whom we know loves us, criticizes us.  The nerve of them telling us what to do or not do!  Who do they think they are?  “It’s a free country and I’ll do what I want.” 

When it is we who feel that someone we’re not close to has acted improperly, we usually don’t rebuke them…. at least, not directly.  We say to ourselves “I’m not going to tell them what I think; I don’t want to provoke an argument.  And/or we think, “it’s not for me to tell them what to do or not do.”  Instead, we’re angry or disgusted at them and complain about them to our spouse and our friends.  We stop even talking to them and avoid them, in extreme cases ending long relationships without telling them why we are so shocked or angry or disappointed in them.   I know of two brothers who spoke almost daily.  One day, the actions of one, unbeknownst to him, offended the other so severely that he cut off all contact with his brother for two years --without telling him why.  The deep wounds that resulted were probably entirely avoidable, if only the offended brother had explained his feelings.  

If you regularly read newspaper advice columns, you know that they are filled with letters from people who are angry and/or disappointed with family, friends, and neighbors, and ask what they should do.  Very often, the answer is – tell them!  This must, of course, be done in a way that honors them and avoids shaming them.  It must be done privately and gently – and usually not immediately, so that the rebuker has time to cool down and reflect on how best to approach the offending party.  But, in any event, righteousness and peace are to be pursued.  (Deuteronomy 16:20; Psalm 34:15).  

To say nothing is a sin … if we have the ability to influence someone who is acting improperly, and don't, then we share in responsibility for that person's misdeeds (Nachmanides' commentary on Leviticus 19:17).  The Talmud teaches, "Jerusalem was destroyed because its citizens didn't rebuke one another" (Shabbat 119b).  Refusal to accept rebuke and hating the rebuker are also sins. Pirket Avot, the “Sayings of the Fathers,” teaches that “The Torah is acquired by forty-eight things.  And they are: [33] loves reproofs.” Perek VI, mishnah 6

If we say nothing when we are offended, we are likely to violate all four of the verses I mentioned that didn’t seem to fit with “You shall surely rebuke.”  We don’t love the offending person as we love ourselves; meaning that we don’t treat them as we would want to be treated.  We would wish to be informed that something we had done or not done had caused offense.  We would want the opportunity to explain and, if appropriate, to apologize and repair the damage and/or relationship.  

By not rebuking, we “place a stumbling block before the blind” by resenting the offender and holding a grudge without their knowing why.  We too often gossip about them and spread ill-will toward them, both verbally and on social media.  And we may even become two-faced: “The rabbis regarded as particularly reprehensible any pretense of ‘business as usual,’ and needless to say an appearance of friendship, at a time when one bears a grudge in his heart (Bereshit Rabbah 84). (Abraham P. Bloch, A Book of Jewish Ethical Concepts: Biblical and Postbiblical (KTAV), 156-7.) 

But what if we go directly to them and ask, “Why did you do this?” or “Why didn’t you do this?”  “You hurt (or disappointed) me!”  “You were so wrong!”  And – this is critical – do so in a way that shows that we care about them and our relationship.  If we do this, our resentment and outrage are likely to diminish.  The damage can be mitigated.  The grudge and gossip may be avoided.  And the offender’s future conduct might change.  Other people might not be hurt.  For example, if we rebuke a person who engages in lashon hara – evil speech about others – instead of listening to it, we may discourage the gossiper from continuing to the detriment of all concerned. 

By not following the commandment “you shall surely rebuke,” we are violating many others.  The Torah does not command us not to hate, for hate is warranted in some circumstances (see, e.g., Proverbs 8:13 “To fear the L-rd is to hate evil.”)  What it does command us is not to hate in our heart, that is, secretly.  Hate is toxic and corrosive of the entire personality.  Tokhachah (reproof) is a process of confrontation and communication. (Shubert Spero, Morality, Halakha and the Jewish Tradition (KTAV), 211-2.)

The answer to my original question, then: -- Which one of the following verses doesn’t fit with the others? – is “none of them; they all fit.”  More than that, “You shall surely reprove” is essential to the fulfillment of all of the others.  Though it may seem paradoxical, rebuke is the best route to reconciliation.

So, if I’ve done something that you feel was wrong, or I failed to do something that you feel I should have done, please let me know … and not by posting your criticism on Facebook!  

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3