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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vayetzei 5772 "Proceed with Caution"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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At the Torah Umesorah Convention in May 2007, Rabbi Asher Weiss shlit”a, an erudite scholar from Yerushalayim, addressed the men during Shalosh Seudos on Shabbos afternoon. In his lecture he emphasized the importance of preserving the dignity of our children/students, even - or rather especially - when we need to discipline or admonish them. During that lecture, he related the following personal anecdote:

“When I was in elementary school, my Rebbe hosted a contest to encourage us to review at night what we had learned during the day, and to daven shacharis with a minyan. If you learned at night it was worth a certain amount of points, and if you davened with a minyan it was worth a different amount of points.

“What should I tell you, my friends? I lied! I hardly davened with a minyan or learned at night but I would always tell my Rebbe that I did. I quickly became one of the leaders in the contest.

“One morning, I was called to the Yeshiva’s office. I knew you weren’t called to the office so that they could tell you how wonderful you were doing and I was very apprehensive. When I got there, my mother and my Rebbe were waiting for me. I immediately looked down; I could not face them. “Asher,” my Rebbe began, “Did you learn last night?” I didn’t answer; I continued to stare at the floor. “Asher, did you daven with a minyan this morning?” Again I didn’t answer. I was mortified and I just stood there, not moving a muscle. After a painful thirty seconds, my Rebbe said, “Okay Asher, go back to class.”

“I went back to class but I was very anxious about what my consequences would be. However, when my Rebbe came back into class few minutes later, he resumed teaching as if nothing happened. Throughout the day, he did not say anything about the meeting or about the fact that I had cheated on the contest. Nevertheless, I was still afraid of what my mother would do to me when I got home. But she too, never said a word to me about it. In fact, to this day, neither of them has ever said anything more about what I did.

“These two phenomenal educators understood that there was no need to punish me. They knew that I had gotten the message. They were careful to preserve my dignity and I recognized it and I remember it vividly until today.”

When Yaakov Avinu first arrived in Charan, he approached the well where all of the shepherds were sluggishly laying around with their sheep. Yaakov addressed them, (29:4) “My brothers, from whence have you come?” Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky zt’l[1] is troubled by Yaakov’s formal greeting. Why would Yaakov refer to a group of strangers as, ‘my brothers’?

Rabbi Kamenetsky explains that many people think that when the Torah commands one Jew to rebuke another[2], it is a mitzvah that falls into the category of, ‘between man and his Creator’[3], because the purpose of the commandment is to ensure that all mitzvos are being properly adhered to by all Jews. Therefore, one who sees another Jew who is not fulfilling the Torah as he should has the responsibility to admonish him, in order to promote and defend the Glory of G-d, as it were. If this was true however, then one should be obligated to rebuke his friend even if it entails humiliating him, which is clearly forbidden[4]. If the purpose of this mitzvah is for the preservation of G-d’s Glory, why should there be any limit? One is not exempt from wearing tefillin if someone will smack him or curse him for doing so. Why should rebuking be any different?

Rabbi Kamenetsky explains that our premise is mistaken. The mitzvah to rebuke another falls into the category of a mitzvah ‘between man and his fellow man’[5]. In other words, the purpose of rebuking someone is to help him realize the error of his actions. It is for this reason that the Torah juxtaposes the commandment to rebuke with the commandment that one love his fellow man[6], because the only way one can successfully rebuke someone, is if the sinner understands that he is being rebuked out of sincere concern. In Rabbi Kamenetsky’s words, “The sinner must feel as if the rebuke is helping him find an object that he himself has lost”.

Rashi points out that when Yaakov Avinu saw the shepherds languishing near the well he was bothered. There was plenty of plenty of time remaining, so why were they gathered there as if the day was done. However, he knew that as a stranger he could not rebuke them. Therefore, Yaakov addressed them amicably as “my brothers” in order to foster a feeling of connection. Only then could he rebuke them.

Rabbi Shalom Schwadron zt’l[7] notes that it is possible for a person to admonish a fellow Jew for desecrating Shabbos and to be held accountable in the celestial courts for disturbing the peace of mind of the sinner by preventing him from enjoying the sin he was committing!

At first glance, this statement sounds ludicrous! If the rebuke was given in private to ensure that there would be no public embarrassment, it would seem that the one offering the rebuke has fulfilled the Biblical commandment to rebuke another Jew in the best possible manner. How could the celestial courts have any complaint against him?

Rabbi Schwadron explains that before one can admonish another person, it is imperative that there be a pre-developed rapport and positive relationship. Only when someone feels that he is being rebuked by someone who truly cares about him and is interested in his welfare, is there a possibility that he may hearken to the rebuke. However, when one feels that he is being personally challenged, his ego will be too hurt to accept what his being told. Such rebuke will not achieve its desired goal, and will probably be counterproductive.

Rabbi Schwadron continues by explaining why people so often rebuke others in an insensitive manner. At the core of human behavior is every person’s motivation to nurture his/her ego. One of the easiest ways for one to feel good about himself is by denigrating others and minimizing their ego. When one rebukes another in a condescending manner, it gives him the feeling that he is more righteous and holier-than-thou. Such rebuke is not a fulfillment of any mitzvah; in fact, au contraire, it is selfishly motivated.

It is for this reason that the person who rebukes the fellow who was smoking on Shabbos without sufficiently knowing the person and having a positive relationship with him, has done no more than causing another Jew unnecessary aggravation. The one offering such rebuke has not fulfilled a mitzvah, because his rebuke only accomplished the furtherance of his own ego since the ‘sinner’ will almost inevitably not pay heed to what he was told.

In Mishley (9:8), the wisest of men wrote, “Do not admonish a mocker perhaps he will hate you; admonish a wise person and he will love you.” The Shelah Hakodosh explains that when one wants to rebuke another, he should not berate the sinner or make him feel lowly. Chastising in such a manner will cause the sinner to hate the chastiser. However, if he extols the virtues of the sinner and then notes how the sin was unbecoming a person of his stature, then he will love him and appreciate the sincere concern.

In his bestseller, “The seven habits of highly effective people”, Stephen Covey introduces an integral idea he calls the ‘Emotional Bank Account’:

“We all know what a financial bank account is. We make deposits into it and build up a reserve from which we can make withdrawals when we need to. An Emotional Bank Account is a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that’s been built up in a relationship. It’s the feeling of safeness you have with another human being.

“If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve. Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call on that trust many times if I need to. I can even make mistakes and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it. My communication may not be clear, but you’ll get my meaning anyway. You won’t make me an, “offender for a word.” When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.

“But if I have a habit of showing discourtesy, disrespect, cutting you off, overreacting, ignoring you, becoming arbitrary, betraying your trust, threatening you, or playing little tin god in your life, eventually my Emotional Bank Account is overdrawn. The trust level gets very low. Then what flexibility do I have?

“None. I’m walking on mine fields. I have to be careful of everything I say. I measure every word. It’s tension city, memo haven. It’s….politicking. And many organizations are filled with it. Many families are filled with it. Many marriages are filled with it.”

The rule is that before one can make a withdrawal, i.e. rebuke, admonish, or chastise, there must have already been many deposits into that bank account. The child/spouse/friend/employee etc. must be confident that the rebuke is not a personal attack but rather an effort to help guide him/her in the right direction to become a better person. Only then is there a chance that the rebuke may achieve its desired effect.

Otherwise one must subjugate himself to the wisdom of the Sages who stated[8], “Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say something that will be accepted, so it is also a mitzvah not to say something that will not be accepted.”

“My brothers, from whence have you come?”

“Admonish a wise person and he will love you”

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[1] Emes L’Yaakov

[2] See Vaykira 19:17

[3] Bayn Adam L’makom

[4] Furthermore, the Gemarah (Archin 16b) records a dispute as to what extent one must go in order to rebuke another. One opinion is that he must rebuke until the sinner smacks him; the second opinion is that the obligation to rebuke continues until the sinner curses him.

[5] Bayn Adam L’chaveiro

[6]V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha”

[7] , parshas Vayetzei

[8] Yevamos 65b

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