By Yael Splansky
Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the following two assertions: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps this explains why for every one blessing listed in this week’s parashah, there are five frightful curses. People who are blessed, are blessed in just a few ways. “Blessed shall be the issue of your womb” (Deuteronomy 28:4). “Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl” (Deuteronomy 28:5). “Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings” (Deuteronomy 28:6). But people who suffer, suffer in a myriad of ways. Cursed shall you be with “fever . . . and drought” (Deuteronomy 28:22). Cursed shall you be with copper skies and iron earth and dust for rain (Deuteronomy 28:23–24). Cursed shall you be by terror, with no assurance of survival, no peace (Deuteronomy 28:25–26). On and on go the lists of hardship, heartbreak, and tragedy.
This section of the Torah is referred to as toch’chah, “rebuke.” It is hard to take. It’s uncomfortable to hear these words aloud in the sacred setting of our sanctuaries, certainly not befitting Shabbat, so it became customary to read these verses of curses and calamityb’lachash, “in just a whisper.” In the days when superstitions ran high, it became customary for the president of the congregation, or someone of confidence and stature, to volunteer for the aliyah when these verses were read. God forbid, someone vulnerable to poverty or sickness would put himself at further risk by standing in such close proximity to these terrifying words.
Moses, who loves his people did not intend them harm, but only protection. His words of rebuke were offered as a warning so the people would self-correct their ways and thrive. Like a loving parent to the Children of Israel, Moses is concerned for their future. Knowing they will soon be without him to guide and protect them, he needs to make an impression now. He uses both the carrot and the stick, both the honey and the sting, in his efforts to inspire and require them to do better. This was his mitzvah to fulfill. And it is ours as well.
Hochei-ach tochi-ach et amitecha, v’lo tisa alav chet, “Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account” (Leviticus 19:17).
We don’t know how Moses’s words of reproof were received. Were they absorbed by the people? Were they internalized in a way that shaped their collective character? Integrated into their deeds? Or were his words of reproach rejected out of hand? Were they rebuffed as the last ditch effort of a cranky old man who was unwilling to concede the microphone to his appointed successor? And how are Moses’s words of reproach received today? Are we able to hear and heed any of the multiple warnings that come in the troubling construct of: “If you [fill in], then [fill in]”?
Two thousand years ago, the Mishnaic Sage, Rabbi Tarfon asked, “I wonder whether there is anyone in this generation who accepts reproof.” Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah responded, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to give reproof!” (Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 16b)
Together, these early Rabbis acknowledge that criticism is hard to receive and hard to give so that it can be received. But according to the later Talmudic Rabbis, the stakes are very high. It could be that everything depends on our ability to give and receive rebuke effectively. Such mutual responsibility for one another can make or break an entire civilization. TractrateShabbat records the Rabbinic debate: Why was Jerusalem destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE? Ulla taught: “Jerusalem was destroyed because its inhabitants were not ashamed of one another . . . And Rabbi Amram son of Rabbi Shimon son of Abba taught in the name of his father’s teacher, Rabbi Chaninah: “Jerusalem was destroyed because they did not rebuke one another” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b–120a). Effective critique of ethical lapses can keep a society, a congregation, a family from collapse.
Phrases like “To each his own,” “Different strokes for different folks,” “Who am I to judge?” “Mind your own business,” and “Moral relativism” are so deeply ingrained in our secular culture that this commandment to rebuke makes most people extremely uncomfortable. Most avoid it altogether. However, our Rabbis observed that when one citizen repeatedly dodges the obligation to reproach a fellow citizen, the fabric of society weakens and can begin to unravel.
An example: You are in a rush. You have to grab a few things at the grocery store before your guests arrive. As you fly through the aisles, you are stopped in your tracks by the scene. A mother is scolding her child. She’s shaking him with a tight grip on the arm and speaking to him in fierce and biting tones. Nothing illegal, but something isn’t right. You aren’t the only one who is noticeably uncomfortable. What do you do? If our Talmudic Sages are correct, that moment is the litmus test for the viability and worth of a society. How we respond, what we do or don’t do in that grocery aisle is no less than a determining factor in the quality and sustainability of the city, the country, the world in which you live.
Much is written about how to rebuke so it is more likely to be received. Rebuke should be given privately (see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character Development 6:7), respectfully (see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Rebels 6:11), without shaming (see Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 16b), and always out of love. In his anthology on Jewish ethics, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin advises, “If you find yourself looking forward to giving the criticism, it’s not the right time to give the criticism. Your motives are not yet coming from the right place and your words are unlikely to sound loving. But if the thought of what you need to do pains you and you wish you didn’t have to do it, then proceed. Your motives are probably trustworthy and this will come through” (A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1, You Shall Be Holy (New York: Random House, 2006], p. 387).
Surprisingly, less is written about how to receive rebuke. Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, a leader of the Musar movement, suggests that we should be grateful to someone who tries to improve our character just as we would be grateful to a doctor. That’s easier said than done. How can we be open to hearing criticism from others—from those closest to us and from those furthest away? This is the time of year when we are to sharpen on our ability to hear, to listen more carefully not only to the still small voice within, but also to the good voices of others, and to the Guiding Voice of our God. S’lichot arrives this Saturday night. The High Holy Day verses and melodies begin to play, tugging at our heartstrings and awakening our consciousness. With one medieval piyut, Ki Hinei KaChomer, we call upon God to shape us, to turn each of us into a masterpiece. Some of the metaphors are gentle: “Shape us the way a potter molds a lump of clay… Guide us the way a helmsman turns the rudder.” Some are harsh: “Give us form the way a mason chisels at the stone…Thrust us into the fire the way a glazier does with glass.” When we sing this prayer-poem, we ask for criticism and correction; we open ourselves up to God’s influence. With S’lichot we begin to remember that more than we want to be right, we want to be good. We acknowledge that we are still works-in-progress and that there is no such thing as a “self-made man.” Let these days stir in us our deepest desire: that our life can yet become a work of art.
Rabbi Yael Splansky is an associate rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. She is the editor of Siddur Pirchei Kodesh, the chair of the Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto, and a fourth-generation Reform rabbi.