Parashat Devarim opens with Moshe rebuking Bnei Yisrael for their sins (see Rashi). Moshe knew of the spiritual challenges that Bnei Yisrael would face upon entering Eretz Yisrael and feared that they would approach these challenges complacently, confident in their ability to resist the alien influences of the Canaanite land. Therefore, he admonished Bnei Yisrael that they had failed before and might fail again unless given the proper motivation. Moshe intended his admonition to awaken a spirit of vigilance and self-scrutiny within the nation, which he hoped would protect Bnei Yisrael in the years ahead. To spare Bnei Yisrael embarrassment, Moshe merely alluded to all of their sins, veiling his reproach in terms only they would understand. However, Moshe later speaks openly about the sins of the Meraglim, the twelve spies, and the Cheit HaEigel, the golden calf! What compelled Moshe to make a contradiction between his subtle and open rebukes of the same sins?
Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura explains that upon hearing Moshe’s admonition, the Jewish people repented wholeheartedly, at which point speaking openly about their sins was not a problem. Ramban expresses a similar idea regarding the brothers of Yosef, who also repented upon hearing of their sins. Imrei Elimelech expands this idea by quoting the Talmudic dictum that when one repents out of love for Hashem, like Bnei Yisrael did, all of his intentional sins are converted into merits. Moshe made a deliberate and explicit mention of Bnei Yisrael’s misdeeds to inform them that their former sins could be used as a springboard to attain new spiritual heights.
Others understand Moshe’s use of allusion in rebuke not as an attempt to spare Bnei Yisrael from shame, but rather as a sign of the Jewish people’s sensitivity to sin. A perceptive, sensitive person needs little reminder of past wrongdoings, and a mere hint suffices to recall the sin to conscious memory. A less sensitive person, however, requires a lucid, explicit, clear admonition. Similarly, a major event in one’s life can be recalled to mind with the subtlest of reminders, while an incident of minor importance requires a blatant reminder. The fact that Moshe merely alluded to Bnei Yisrael’s sins testifies to the extreme sensitivity of the Jewish people, whose abhorrence and loathing of sin was such that even the slightest of reminders sufficed to bring them to repentance. Rav Yosef Nendik notes that upon receiving Moshe’s rebuke, Bnei Yisrael did not attempt to deny their sins; instead, they were willing to face up to their acts and take the necessary remedial steps to rehabilitation. A wise man once said, “The Sages teach, ‘Dai LeChakima BeRemiza,’ ‘For a wise man, and allusion is sufficient.’ But what is to be done for one who is not wise? For the fool, even a sledgehammer might not do the trick! He still may not understand what you are talking about!”
Generally, the purpose of rebuke should not be to shame the sinner; rather, rebuke should be used to make people aware of the emptiness of life when it is devoid of Hashem or Torah. Rav Michael Ber Weissmandl, who lived before the invention of the computer, reached into the hidden codes of the Torah and found a very interesting support for this idea. If a person begins from the letter Bet in the word Devarim and counts six hundred thirteen letters, he finds a Reish. Another six hundred thirteen letters later is a Chaf, and yet another six hundred thirteen letters later is a Hei. These letters, when combined, form the word Berachah. Clearly, the function of Moshe’s rebuke was to transform acts of wickedness into a source of blessing for everyone involved. When we fulfill the Mitzvah to reproach others for their misdeeds, we must similarly make clear that we intend only the best for the sinner. If rebuke is given in this fashion, it is very likely to succeed.