This week’s Torah reading is the beginning of the last of the five books of the Torah and was spoken by Moses during the last five weeks of his life. It begins with his giving rebuke to the nation. We can learn a number of lessons about rebuke by analyzing how carefully he chose his words. We will concentrate on one of the lessons Moses has taught us.
The Jews did many things to anger God throughout their sojourn in the wilderness. Moses realizes that he will soon die and he uses the opportunity to remind and admonish the Jews of that generation regarding some of the misdeeds they did during their forty years of wandering. It seems peculiar that he didn’t explicitly reveal their wrongdoings; rather he merely mentioned the place that it happened. The purpose of rebuke is to make someone aware of a wrongdoing; how can we understand Moses mentioning only the place of the transgression without mentioning what the transgression was?
Rashi address this question and says that Moses refers only to places “in which they angered the Almighty; he therefore said these words in an obscure manner and only intimated (that they had sinned in these places) to uphold the honor of Israel.” Moses didn’t need to mention the transgressions, the simple hint of mentioning the place was enough. It’s human nature to recognize something from a hint when something is important to us. For example, when a woman talks about her grandparents and says “they’re survivors” everyone realizes that they lived through the horrors of the Holocaust, a tragic memory that still lingers in everyone’s mind; mentioning “survivor” is all that’s needed to describe it. The same applies to one who truly wants to develop as a person. A mere hint will cause him to remember his wrongdoing and think about insuring that it will not happen again.
This is the first lesson we learn about rebuke. When something about one’s past is embarrassing and we want to help that person, we should not delve into the matter more than is necessary. If one is sincere about rebuke a simple hint is enough; anything else is degrading and not upholding the honor of the individual to whom you are attempting to rebuke.
Why is it that when someone wrongs us, we insist on detailing every aspect of what (s)he did (especially in marriage)? A wife might be hurt by her husband’s action or comment. If she is wise (“A woman’s wisdom builds her home.” Proverbs 14:1), she will merely mention the incident (“remember what happened last night?”) without going into detail about every injustice her husband had ever committed against her. If she’s able to say it in a calm way, there’s at least a chance that her husband will accept her words and, if he is sincere, take the incident to heart and (hopefully) apologize. She can only take this approach if she has her husband’s best interests in mind. If she’s just angry and doesn’t care about him, she will simply vent, raise her tone and angerly say, “someone needed to tell you this.” We have an intrinsic sense to know when someone is saying something for our benefit or (s)he continues to rant about a wrongdoing. In the first case we stand of chance of admitting our error but in the second case, we shut down.
Moses was about to die and he knew the people would pay close attention to his words. Before entering the Land of Israel he wanted to make sure they had learned lessons from their many mistakes over the forty year period in the wilderness. He mentioned many places where they had angered God but said nothing other than the name of the place. He knew they were sincere and had their best interests in mind.
If we allow Moses’ example to serve as a template for us, we will have more peace of mind and serenity in our lives. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before criticizing someone is. Will (s)he listen? What is my motivation? (To unload and show that I am frustrated or for the good of the person?) What is the best way to say it? People prepare for college and job interviews; a person should prepare every time he wants to “give someone a piece of his mind.” Keep it short; sometimes a few sincere words can shed more light and have the greatest impact.
The Hebrew word tochachah is usually translated “rebuke,” but a more accurate translation is ‘clarification.’ If you truly desire to help someone, the best way is to clarify an action or behavior that is contrary to the person’s values or life (s)he has chosen to lead. Moses has served as the template for the qualities necessary for a Jewish leader; you have to love your flock, even when they appear unlovable. You want what’s best for them and will seek to bring them clarity when you see them going in a way contrary to their Jewish heritage. The more we can remove ourselves emotionally from incident(s) about which we seek to rebuke (i.e. clarify), the more effective we will be not only concerning the person to whom we rebuke, but also ourselves. It’s hard not to allow resentments and negative emotions to control us but when we manage to do so, we become better people-and happier-people.