Friday, July 27, 2012

Devarim - The Rebuke of Moses

Sefer Devarim is primarily made up of speeches given by Moses in the last several weeks of his life in which he admonishes and rebukes the Jewish people in preparation for their entry into the land of Israel. Rashi (Devarim 1:3), citing Sifreipoints out that Moses "did not admonish Israel" until shortly before his death, a practice he learned from Jacob, who rebuked his sons shortly before his death. The Sages gave several reasons why it is proper to reserve the rebuke of others until shortly before one's death:
  1. So that a person will not rebuke a person more than once for the same sin.
  2. So that the person who will received the rebuke will not meet his rebuker again and be embarrassed.
  3. So that the person receiving the rebuke will not bear a grudge against his rebuker.
  4. So that they will part in peace.
At first glance, it might seem that the last two reasons contradict each other. Moreover, with regard to the third reason, why does delaying rebuke until shortly before death ensure that the recipient of the rebuke will not hold a grudge? However, it would seem that the experience of receiving rebuke from a person who is soon to depart from this world, especially from one who is deeply beloved to you (as was Moses to the Jewish people and Jacob to his sons), is profoundly different from ordinary rebuke. The knowledge that the rebuker will soon depart from this world creates an openness to rebuke, and a desire to clear the air of all past issues, that enables to the recipient to receive his rebuke without resentment. Thus, not only does the person receiving the rebuke not resent it, but rebuke at this point can actually accomplish a reconciliation that would have been impossible beforehand.

The Ben Ish Chai
The Ben Ish Chai (Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, d.1904), in his Sefer Malach haBris (on Parshas Devarim), raises a far more basic question. The Torah commands us to rebuke our fellow Jews, as it says (Leviticus 19:17), "הוכיח תוכיח את עמיתך" - "You shall rebuke your fellow," and the Sages (Talmud, Bava Metzia 31a) tell us that this obligation applies "even a hundred times"! How then can we say that rebuke should be reserved to a once-in-a-lifetime event, shortly before death?

The Ben Ish Chai answers that there are two forms of rebuke and admonishment. One form is the rebuke given to a specific individual for a specific sin, in which the sinner is directly confronted with his guilt. The other form is a general admonishment on the importance of doing good and avoiding evil, in which the speaker arouses the listener to repentance by discussing the evil of a variety of wicked deeds without specifying any particular culpability on the part of the listener.

The difference between the two approaches is that the latter avoids causing any embarrassment or resentment on the part of the recipient. It is with regard to such rebuke that the Sages say that it should be repeated "even a hundred times." 

In our context here in Devarim, however, we are discussing rebuke of the first category, in which Moses directly confronted the Jewish people with their sins. It is only with regard to such rebuke that the Sages says that one should reserve rebuke until shortly before death.

Of course, it should go without saying that even under these circumstances, rebuke must be given appropriately and correctly, with a deep concern for the dignity of the listeners. Thus, the Ben Ish Chai continues, even here, when Moses directly rebuked the people for their past sins, he only spoke in the presence of "all Israel," even though only a small minority had actually been guilty in any given sin.

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