A Good Rebuke Brings Peace

Rabbi Gregory S. Marx

By Rabbi Gregory Marx

Parshat Kedoshim

Without a doubt, Kedoshim, our Torah portion for this Shabbat, is so full of wisdom and faith. It reminds us that we can be more than we already are.

So many self-help gurus remind us that we are holy, that everything we do can be lifted up and celebrated. This Torah portion, on the other hand, comes to teach us that we can be holy. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Holiness, in other words, is a goal, not a natural state of being.

In that path to being holy, we find a choice gem: Leviticus 19:17, “Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him.”

A true friend, neighbor is one who feels an obligation to be helpful, not only in good times, but when things go astray, when your neighbor gets into trouble or brings suffering to others. In the midrash Bereshit Rabbah, we learn that true love means having the courage to say what is needed. Rabbi Yosi ben Chanina said, “Love without reproof is no love.”

Elsewhere we learn from Resh Lakish, “Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace.”

We are to act the part of the friendly critic, helping our friend to look at him/herself, and see themselves through the eyes of others, so that our friend can correct their own shortcomings and live up to their fullest potentials. A true friend does not flatter, but is a gentle and friendly critic. Obsequious flattery is cheap and safe. Criticism is risky, but it provides the greatest opportunity for growth.

According to our tradition, there are numerous don’ts to being this gentle critic which we can apply to our friendship:

Don’t confront the other person publicly. A public confrontation tends to cause the other to defend their actions and to become locked into a public posture.

Don’t talk to the other person when you are angry. Anger begets anger and results in heat and not light.

Don’t use harsh words or personal references which would hurt or embarrass the other person.

Don’t argue against the person; argue against the behavior. Ad hominem arguments not only hurt, they lengthen the debate and make people more intransigent.

Don’t criticize another before looking within and seeing if we possess the same character flaw we seek to criticize in others. Famously we learn from the Baal Shem Tov that if we see another person doing something ugly, we are to meditate on the presence of that same ugliness in ourselves. Maybe, the sight of a sin before our eyes came in order to remind us of that fault within, so as to bring us back in repentance.

Don’t offer even the most loving criticism until you are ready to hear it.

Here are a few Jewish dos:

Be sure of your own motives, that you are doing it for the sake of the person or the cause which you believe in, and not to relieve your feelings or to unload your anger. Then speak as calmly, as softly and as lovingly as possible. Then focus on the deed not the doer. Point out what was wrong with the act or idea, but don’t impugn the character of the actor.

Respect the person, even while you criticize the deed. Encourage positive steps taken. Do remember that constant negativity will soon be ignored by the listener.

Holiness does not come easily or cheaply. It means doing the hard stuff and sometimes that means gently and kindly opening our mouths and trying to correct a friend. Even the rabbis had a hard time with it. They were very candid about the difficulty of offering a reproach.

According to the Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon said, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who accepts rebuke, for if one says to him (Tarfon) Remove the mote (small substance/piece of material) from between your eyes, he would answer: Remove the beam from between your eyes! Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: I wonder if there is one in this generation who knows how to reprove! Rabbi Yochanan said, I call heaven and earth as my witness that because of me Akiva was punished, because I used to complain about him before Rabban Gamliel, and all the more so Akiva showered me with love.”

I end with a related quote from Proverbs 9:8: “Reprove not a scorner, lest you be hated. Reprove a wise person, and you will be loved for it.”

Rabbi Gregory S. Marx is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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