Respectful and Compassionate Rebuke

מרן הגאב"ד שליט"א
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"אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה אל כל ישראל"

אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה, וכי לא נתנבא משה אלא אלו בלבד והלא הוא כתב כל התורה כולה שנאמר "ויכתב משה את התורה הזאת." מה תלמוד לומר אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה מלמד שהיו דברי תוכחות.

“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel.”[1]

These were not the only words that Moshe prophesized.  He wrote the entire Torah, as the verse states, “And Moshe wrote this Torah.”[2]  Rather, this verse means to say,  “These are the words of rebuke that Moshe spoke to all of Israel.”[3]

The Chozeh of Lublin interpreted the verse, “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel,” to mean that the words of this sefer speak to every Jew, in every generation, and in every situation.  Each person can find it in a message uniquely suitable to his own individual circumstances.[4]

Torah leaders of previous generations advised making a constant study of Sefer Devarim, extolling the great benefits to be gained thereby.  The Yehudi HaKodesh of Peshischa would study Devarim daily, referring to it as a “mussar sefer[5], since it is mostly comprised of the admonishments the Moshe delivered before his death.

The Netziv writes, “If a person pays close attention to the mussar in this sefer, spoken by Moshe Rabbeinu with rua’ach hakodesh, he will find inspiration as sweet as milk and honey, appropriate to his own situation.  Even Yehoshua, who succeeded Moshe as the leader of Israel, constantly studied this sefer.  So too, each person should delve into Sefer Devarim to the best of his ability, to find the proper path upon which to walk through this world.  Sefer Devarim is a candle that sheds light upon our path.”[6]

As such, we must pay special attention to the beginning of this sefer, to understand the method of rebuke by which Moshe chose to influence the entire Jewish people until the end of time.  It is no easy task to admonish others.  Even in the time of the Mishna, Rebbe Elazar ben Azrya said, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke.”[7]  Admonishment requires wisdom and insight into human nature – which was lacking even then, and all the more so in our own times.  The Gemara also cites Rebbe Tarfon as saying, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to accept rebuke.”

Where then does the responsibility lie?  Is the community at fault for failing to accept rebuke, and therefore no one is able to rebuke us?  Or are our leaders at fault for failing to rebuke us properly, and therefore we do not accept their rebuke?

In his commentary to this Gemara, Rashi adds an important insight – “Effective rebuke requires one to admonish his subject in a respectful way, which will not cause the subject to blush in embarrassment.”  Thus, Rebbe Elazar ben Azarya wondered if there was anyone even in his own generation who was able to offer rebuke with thoughtfulness and compassion.  Successful rebuke depends on the manner in which it is offered.  It must not be given in a spirit of  anger and disapproval, but rather in a spirit of love, consideration and blessing.

Parallel to this Gemara, the Sifri states as follows:

אמר רבי טרפון העבודה אם יש בדור הזה מי שיכול להוכיח אמר רבי אלעזר בן עזריה העבודה אם יש בדור הזה מי שיכול לקבל תוכחות. אמר רבי עקיבה העבודה אם יש בדור הזה שיודע היאך מוכיחים. אמר רבי יוחנן בן נורי מעיד אני עלי שמים וארץ שיותר מחמשה פעמים נתקנתר על ידי עקיבה לפני רבן גמליאל ביבנה שהייתי קובל עליו והיה מקנתרו וכל כך יודע אני בו שהיה מוסיף בי אהבה על כל אחת ואחת לקיים מה שנאמר "אל תוכח לץ פן ישנאך הוכח לחכם ויאהבך.”

Rebbe Tarfon said, “I swear by the service of the Beis HaMikdash, that there is no one in our generation capable of accepting rebuke.”  Rebbe Akiva said, “I swear by the service of the Beis HaMikdash, that there is no one in our generation capable of giving rebuke.”  Rebbe Yochanan ben Nuri said, “I call the Heavens and Earth to testify that more than five times I caused Rebbe Akiva to be chastised by Rabban Gamliel in Yavne.  I would complain to Rabban Gamliel (about Rebbe Akiva), and Rabban Gamliel would chastise him.  Yet I am perfectly sure that his love for me increased each time, in fulfillment of the verse, ‘Do not chastise a fool, lest he hate you.  Chastise a wise man, and he will love you.”[8]

Since Rebbe Akiva was rebuked with love, it served to improve him.  He appreciated the concern of those who chastised him.  In this spirit, Moshe Rabbeinu, greatest of all prophets, chastised Bnei Yisroel in Sefer Devarim.  He did not wave the proverbial rod of admonishment over their heads.  Instead he offered subtle, respectful hints, to point out the areas that required improvement.

Sefer Devarim begins with a recount of the places where Bnei Yisroel camped in their journey through the desert.  Rashi explains that Moshe mentioned these locations as subtle hints to the incidents in which Bnei Yisroel angered Hashem.  “He hinted obscurely to these sins, in order to protect the honor of Israel.”[9]  By preserving the honor of the subject of one’s rebuke, one thereby strengthens the bonds of love between them, making the rebuke more effective.

As he rebuked them for their sins, Moshe also prayed for Hashem’s forgiveness.  Our Sages go so far as to say that just as he rebuked Bnei Yisroel for their sins, he also rebuked Hashem (so to speak), by saying, “Why, Hashem, should your anger flare against Your nation.”[10]

Even as Moshe rebuked Israel, he stood at their defense.  For example, Rashi explains that the location Di Zahav was a reference to the Golden Calf.  Di Zahav means “abundant gold.”  Moshe defended them by saying that their over-abundance of sudden wealth corrupted them and turned them towards idolatry.[11]

To reconcile the differences between Hashem and His beloved nation, Torah leaders must serve a dual role.  They must encourage Bnei Yisroel to fulfill their obligations to Hashem, and they must also show Hashem the beauty and grace of Bnei Yisroel.  The Zohar refers to these roles as “shushbina d’Malka” (attendant of the King - Hashem) and “shushbina d’Malchasa” (attendant of the Queen – Bnei Yisroel).[12]

This was also the intention of Pinchas, when he exacted vengeance on Hashem’s behalf by slaying Zimri.  Hashem granted him a “covenant of priesthood forever, as a reward for being vengeful for his G-d, and atoning for Bnei Yisroel.”[13]  The verse stresses Pinchas’s double intent.  He was vengeful on Hashem’s behalf, seeking to halt the sins of Bnei Yisroel.  He also sought to atone for Bnei Yisroel, to prevent Hashem from punishing them.

The Gemara tells us that the angels wanted to harm Pinchas, but Hashem restrained them.  “Leave him be,” Hashem said.  “He is an avenger, son of an avenger (descended of Levi, who avenged Dina’s disgrace); a repeller of wrath, son of a repeller of wrath (descended of Aharon, who stopped the plague after Korach’s revolt).”[14]

Why did the angels want to harm him?  Perhaps we can explain that since the angels are unable to see into the innermost recesses of the heart, they mistook Pinchas’s intention as being motivated by anger.  Hashem alone recognized Pinchas’s true intent, and testified that although Pinchas was indeed an “avenger,” he was also a “repeller of wrath.”[15]  Therefore his vengeance was truly worthy and admirable.

*

Our Sages ascribe great praise to the Torah leaders who risked their lives to plead on our behalf before the Heavenly Court.  The Midrash states as follows:

ויחל משה, כך פתח רבי תנחומא בר אבא  "ויאמר להשמידם לולי משה בחירו עמד בפרץ לפניו" ... רבינו אמר למה הדבר דומה למלך שהיה דן את בנו והיה הקטיגור עומד ומקטרג. מה עשה הפדגוג של בן כיון שראה אותו מתחייב דחף את הקטיגור והוציאו לחוץ ועמד לו במקומו מלמד על הבן סניגוריא, כך בשעה שעשו ישראל את העגל היה השטן עומד ומקטרג בפנים ומשה עומד מבחוץ, מה עשה משה עמד ודחף את השטן והוציאו לחוץ ועמד במקומו, שנאמר "עמד בפרץ לפניו", עמד לו במקומו של פורץ.

  רב שמואל בר נחמן אמר עמד בפרץ לפניו דבר קשה, משל למלך שכעס על בנו וישב על בימה ודנו וחייבו, נטל את הקולמוס לחתום גזר דינו מה עשה סונקתדרו חטף את הקולמוס מתוך ידו של מלך כדי להשיב חמתו, כך בשעה שעשו ישראל אותו מעשה ישב הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם בדין לחייבם, שנאמר הרף ממני ואשמידם ולא עשה אלא בא לחתום גזר דינן שנאמר "זובח לאלהים יחרם", מה עשה משה נטל את הלוחות מתוך ידו של הקב"ה כדי להשיב חמתו.

למה הדבר דומה, לשר ששלח לקדש אשה עם הסרסור הלך וקלקלה עם אחר, הסרסור שהיה נקי מה עשה נטל את כתובתה מה שנתן לו השר לקדשה וקרעה אמר מוטב שתדון כפנויה ולא כאשת איש, כך עשה משה כיון שעשו ישראל אותו מעשה נטל את הלוחות ושברן כלומר שאלו היו רואין עונשן לא חטאו, ועוד אמר משה מוטב נידונין כשוגגין ואל יהו מזידין למה שהיה כתוב בלוחות "אנכי ה' אלהיך" ועונשו אצלו "זובח לאלהים יחרם" לפיכך שבר את הלוחות, "ויאמר להשמידם", מיד התחיל חוגר בתפלה, הוי "ויחל משה את פני ה' אלהיו" שעמד בקלות ראש לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא לבקש צרכן של ישראל הוי "ויחל משה."

And Moshe entreated.”[16] Rebbe Tanchuma bar Abba began his explanation by citing the verse, “Hashem planned to destroy them, had Moshe, His chosen one, not stood in the breach before Him.”[17]

Rabbeinu (Yehudah HaNassi) compared this to the case of a king who sat in judgment over his son, while the prosecutor stood before him to state the case against the prince.  When the prince’s mentor saw that the prince was losing the case, he grabbed the prosecutor, forced him out of the court, and stood in the prosecutor’s place to advocate on the prince’s behalf.  So too, when Bnei Yisroel made the Golden Calf, the Satan stood before Hashem to prosecute them while Moshe waited outside.  Moshe then pushed the Satan out of the court and stood in the Satan’s place, as it is written, “He stood in the breach” – he stood in the place of the ‘breaker.’

R’ Shmuel bar Nachman said that Moshe stood in the breach to challenge Hashem.  This can be compared to the case of a king who was angry at his son and sat at court to judge him as guilty.  When the king took a quill to write his son’s sentence, the son’s defender grabbed the quill from the king’s hand to protect the son from the king’s anger.  So too, when Bnei Yisroel worshipped the Golden Calf, HaKadosh Baruch Hu sat at court to judge them as guilty, as it is written, “Leave Me be, and I will destroy them.”[18]  Moshe did not heed this order.  When Hashem prepared to write their sentence, “He who sacrifices to idols will be destroyed,”[19] Moshe grabbed the Luchos from Hashem’s hand, to protect Bnei Yisroel from His anger.

This can also be compared to a nobleman who sent an emissary to betroth to him a woman.  In the meantime the woman was unfaithful.  The emissary took the marriage document that the nobleman had given him and tore it up.  “Better that she be judged as a licentious single woman, and not as an unfaithful wife,” he reasoned.  So too, when Bnei Yisroel worshipped the Golden Calf, Moshe took the Luchos and smashed them.

Moshe was then able to argue that had they seen the Luchos and realized the punishment for idolatry, they never would have sinned.  “Better that they be judged for accidental sin, than for deliberate sin,” he reasoned.  He therefore destroyed the Luchos which contain the passage, “I am Hashem your G‑d … He who sacrifices to idols will be destroyed.”

Hashem planned to destroy them,” but Moshe immediately girded himself in prayer, as it is written, “And Moshe entreated the countenance of Hashem,” confronting Him with a certain degree of impertinence to plead on behalf of Israel.[20]

Even after the terrible sin of the Golden Calf, in which our Sages compare us to a “disgraceful bride who was unfaithful under her own chuppa,”[21] Moshe still prayed on our behalf, standing in our defense before the Heavenly Court, and thereby awakening Hashem’s love and mercy towards His nation.

From here we learn the obligation of every person who finds himself in a position to admonish his community.  Even as he rebukes them for their sins, he must find a way to advocate on their behalf.  This is as Hashem told Moshe, “Encourage Me to be kind to Bnei Yisroel and encourage them to be loyal to Me.”[22]


[1] Devarim 1:1

[2] Devarim 31:9

[3] Sifri, Devarim 1

[4] Zichron Zose

[5] Pri Tzaddik, Parshas Tzav

[6] Ha’Emek Davar, Introduction to Devarim

[7] Erchin 16b

[8] Mishlei 9:8; Sifri, Devarim 1

[9] Rashi, Devarim 1:1

[10] Shemos 32:11; Devarim Rabba 1:2

[11] Rashi, ibid

[12] Zohar III, Metzora 53

[13] Bamidbar 25:13

[14] Sanhedrin 82b

[15] This point is elaborated in Minchas Asher: Parshas Pinchas, in the essay entitled, “Vengeance and Compassion.”

[16] Shemos 32:11

[17] Tehillim 106:23

[18] Devarim 9:14

[19] Shemos 22:19

[20] Shemos Rabba, Ki Sisa 43:1

[21] Shabbos 88b

[22] See Rashi, Bamidbar 28:2