Rebuke, the Right Way

By the time this week ends, we will be entering into Tisha B’av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. It marks the destruction of two Holy Temples, and over the years almost every great tragedy that has befallen the people while they endured exile. Throughout the centuries Jews have mourned, wept, chanted poetry of lament, fasted, asked why, raged, surrendered to the brokenness (at least for a day), and occasionally even opened themselves up to an unsettling form of communication - the rebuke. Tochecha, as it is known in Hebrew, is a deeply important spiritual practice, but one that is extremely difficult to get right. It involves telling someone else what they are doing wrong, in such a way that they are grateful you told them and change their ways. Can you imagine??

By the time this week ends, we will be entering into Tisha B’av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. It marks the destruction of two Holy Temples, and over the years almost every great tragedy that has befallen the people while they endured exile. Throughout the centuries Jews have mourned, wept, chanted poetry of lament, fasted, asked why, raged, surrendered to the brokenness (at least for a day), and occasionally even opened themselves up to an unsettling form of communication - the rebuke. Tochecha, as it is known in Hebrew, is a deeply important spiritual practice, but one that is extremely difficult to get right. It involves telling someone else what they are doing wrong, in such a way that they are grateful you told them and change their ways. Can you imagine??

Most of the stories Jews tell about why bad things happened to them in ancient times involve claiming some responsibility. Rather than victim blaming, this inner story creates the possibility of agency. If we somehow messed up, and that’s why bad things happened, maybe we can make up for it, or do better next time, and then bad things won’t happen. Of course, this only works if there is some truth to it. Some things in the universe simply will not go away regardless of our quality of behavior. Nevertheless, I think there is a helpful lesson the rabbis give us when they say that Jerusalem fell because of baseless hatred among Jews, or because they didn’t make a blessing over Torah study (really - it’s in the Talmud, Bava Metzia 85b), or they stopped observing Shabbat, or any of the other dozen or so reasons the tradition cites. If we can analyze where we went wrong, we can learn and grow. And where we can learn and grow, we can eventually thrive.

Rebuke is one way that we learn and grow, and that’s why we have a Proverb that says, “One who reproves a person will in the end find more favor than one who splits the tongue (that is, speaks duplicitously)” (Proverbs 28:23). Surrounding yourself with flattering liars stifles more than just the truth - it cheats you out of receiving a deep gift in this one precious life: learning something new about yourself and growing into a better person as a result.

This week, we enter into the book of Devarim / Deuteronomy. Most of the book is framed as Moses teaching the new generation of Israelites everything the generation of the wilderness experienced. They are about to enter into the land of Canaan, and Moses will soon die just short of that threshold. This is his last chance to share words of wisdom, to teach, inspire, help envision a new way of life, and ultimately entrust his life’s mission to others. He begins, as it happens, with rebuke. Even though it wasn’t this current generation’s mistakes he recounts, he desperately wants to teach them to do better, to avoid where his generation went wrong.

In the midrashim (creative commentaries) on the opening of the book of Devarim, there are a number of teachings related to rebuke, each opening up different insights. Here’s one I particular like for our moment in time (Devarim Rabbah 1:4):

“These are the words (devarim)...” Rabbi Acha son of Rabbi Chanina said: It would have been fitting for the rebukes to be said from the mouth of Balaam, and the blessings from the mouth of Moses, except that if Balaam had rebuked them, Israel would have said “A hater rebukes us,” and if Moses had blessed them, the nations of the world would have said, “The one who loves them blesses them.” The Holy One of Blessing said: Moses, who loves them, will rebuke them, and Balaam, who hates them, will bless them, in order that the blessings and rebukes will become clear in the hand of Israel.

So much of the rebuke, criticism, scorn, or downright hate speech swirling around us right now is destroying our social world. Rebuke, given with love from someone you trust in the context of deep relationship, has the capacity to build new worlds. Moses, beginning his speeches with rebuke, does so only from a place of mutual belovedness, and out of a desire that his words build up the Israelites, rather than tear them down. What if we, like Moses, made sure our critiques were offered only in the context of love, trust, and ongoing relationship? I suspect we would have less to say, but it would be more impactful.

Another midrash from the same section (Devarim Rabbah 1:6) sees in the same phrase that opens Deuteronomy, “These are the words (devarim)...”, not rebuke but a vision of the Israelites at their best. Instead of devarim, the midrash reads devorim, bees. Like bees buzzing around pollinating flowers and creating sweet honey, the Israelites, by acts of righteousness and true seeing, create sweet nourishment in the world.

May we be bees of justice and beauty, thoughtful in giving and receiving rebuke, and mindful that when we practice caring relationships with family, friends, and community, we are building the world we hope to see.

Shabbat Shalom!