Parashat Devarim: What is the most effective model for rebuke?

Moses doesn’t just rebuke the people. He causes the nation to understand that each individual is part of a system, and part of a nation. What do his historical descriptions teach us about the end of miraculous leadership?

By Yael Tawil, Principal of OTS’s Jennie Sapirstein Junior High School in Ramot, Jerusalem

We all love compliments, and believe that empowerment and putting in a good word are far more effective than rebuking, but sometimes, as parents and educators, we ask ourselves when to take others to task, and who we should be making those comments to. We also must know when to remain silent.

The Book of Deuteronomy, also called the Mishne Torah, contains Moses’ last address, and the various chapters of this book include quite a few words of rebuke. In the first four books, the leadership of the Jewish people was supernatural. This system centered on the individual. Now, with the Israelites camped out in the plains of Moab, preparing to enter the Holy Land, we usher in a new stage: natural leadership. Moses’ leadership involves harsh reprimands. He often repeats that the nation should learn from its forefathers’ past.

Moses’ mission and aspiration is for the nation to internalize this reprimand and impress it into their hearts. The rabbis of the Mussar movement interpret the verse “Know therefore this today, and consider it in your heart” as meaning that “knowing this today” and “considering it in your heart” are light-years apart.  The children of Israel listen to their leader and his rebukes with an open mind and an attentive ear. This wasn’t merely about listening and cognitive processing, but an emotional experience allowing them to take in the message and understand it deeply within their hearts.

The Midrash Hagadol, referring to Moses’ rebukes, states: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He said to Israel: Moses’ rebuke is as dear to me as the Ten Commandments”. Rebuke is a vital tool for progress. Usually, people don’t notice their own faults, and only those around them can truly help them grow, progress, and become conscious of themselves and society. Rebuke is mentioned as one of the 48 ways of acquiring the Torah, and a person should love reproach (Sayings of the Fathers, Chapter 6). The sages felt that avoiding criticism is so problematic that they determined that “Jerusalem was destroyed only because people did not rebuke one another”, and they saw the commandment of rebuke as a manifestation of the love we feel for others.

Why is it so vital to listen to rebuke? What did Moses do so that the nation would listen to him?  He rebuked out of love.  Moses loved the people of Israel and felt responsible for their future as a nation and for their conduct once they entered the land he couldn’t enter. Our sages state that this is the condition – that all rebukes are motivated by love. Furthermore, the person doing the rebuking must also be capable of speaking softly, with kid gloves. If a person is judgmental and critical by nature, how would anyone listen to his reprimands and accept them?

The Midrash chooses to compare the villain Bilaam to Moses in order to illustrate how sensitive we must be when we decide who will say what: “One more thing [is meant by] these are the words, R. Acha, quoting R. Hanina, stated that the rebukes could have been stated by Bilaam, while Moses uttered the blessings, but had Bilaam issued [these rebukes], the children of Israel would have said ‘the one who rebukes us despises us’, and had Moses blessed them, the nations of the world would have said that he [Moses] had blessed them because he loved them The Holy One, Blessed Be He determined that Moses, who loved them, would rebuke them, while Bilaam, who hated them, would bless them, so that the blessings and rebukes would be clear to the people of Israel (Devarim Rabbah, Chapter 1, Section 4).

“For everything there is a season; a time for every experience under heaven.” We should note the state our audience is in, and the time we choose to issue a rebuke, since a rebuke should not be issued at times of sorrow and distress. We see that both Jacob, when he said to Rachel “Am I in the place of God”, and Moses, who addressed the people, saying “Hear now, O rebels”, erred by overlooking the physical and emotional state of the ones on the receiving end of the rebuke. The children of Israel are now camped out in the plains of Moab, shortly before entering the Promised Land, so now is precisely when this rebuke is possible and necessary. Rashi, basing himself on Sifri, teaches about the special moments in the rebuke: “From whom did he learn this? From Jacob, who reproved his sons only shortly before his death, so that one should not reprove him and again have to reprove him; and that his fellow whom he reproves should not, when he afterwards happens to see him, feel ashamed before him… and so he shall not feel anything against him in his heart, so that the rebukers are not rebuked, for rebuke leads to peace.” This is how Jacob behaved when blessing his sons, and this is how Moses behaves in our parsha.

“Living greatly” – another viewpoint suggested by Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, which relates the intensity of the reprimands recorded in the Book of Numbers with the stage that the people of Israel are in, both back then and today. Moses doesn’t just rebuke the people. He causes the nation to understand that each individual is part of a system, and part of a nation. Challenges and failures are interwoven into his historical account. He uses them to impart responsibility onto the nation and the individual before they enter the land, where they will be directed through natural leadership.

Rav Kook is asking us to perceive every moment through the prism of greatness. An individual’s private moment is tied into the entire nation, and as such, it affects the entire people of Israel. A person who, at a certain point in time, chooses to broaden his or her horizons and take action immortalizes that moment and infuses it with meaning. “The great people address the minute issues, but they do so in ways of greatness” (Orot Hakodesh, Part 2, page 377).

On a personal note, over the past few years, we have been studying the topic of “living in greatness” in our school. Fortunately, the young women studying here see this concept as a driving force behind progress and finding a purpose in life. When encountering individuals passionate about fulfilling their calling, the girls feel challenged. They serve as their inspiration for the set of values these girls build for themselves, and they galvanize their personalities. I believe that as educators, we operate out of responsibility, and through prayer, in order to strike a sensitive balance, where, at times, we are required to criticize and rebuke. Sometimes, rebukes are said out of anger, disappointment and alienation. As we learn from Moses, rebuke must stem from proximity and love, and it must be given when the time is ripe. Sometimes, we can “bypass” and forego various rebukes when we present our young people with challenges that let them feel responsible and influential. Then, they can grow and conduct themselves out of a feeling of awareness and greatness.


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