Open Rebuke, Hidden Love by Rabbi Michael Hoenig


At the beginning of this week’s Parashah, Ya’akov Avinu blatantly rebukes three unfamiliar shepherds who had seemingly taken a break from their work. Ya’akov exclaims, “Hein Od HaYom Gadol Lo Eit HeiAseif HaMikneh HaShku HaTzon ULechu Re’u,” “Look, the day is still long; it is not yet time to bring the livestock in; water the flock and go on grazing”(BeReishit 29:7). It is safe to assume that most people would be offended and quite defensive by a complete stranger’s unsolicited critique. The shepherds, however, seem to take the rebuke seriously, and even attempt to offer an excuse for their lack of work.

Why didn’t the shepherds start yelling or give a heated response to Ya’akov? At the very least, why didn’t they tell him to mind his own business?

The Ponevezher Rav explains how Ya’akov was able to connect and offer rebuke to complete strangers. Upon meeting them, he utters an incredibly powerful word: Achai, my brothers. Had Ya’akov instantly attacked the shepherds and demanded an explanation for their laziness, they would have certainly become very defensive and inflamed. By the time Ya’akov offered rebuke, however, they already sensed his genuine care for them, and they were therefore able to receive his criticism.  

The Gemara in Arachin (16b) describes the obligation and parameters of the Mitzvah of Tochachah (rebuke).  There is a three way Machloket regarding when a person is absolved from his responsibility to rebuke his fellow man. When the offender either strikes, curses, or protests the individual offering rebuke, then the Mitzvah is no longer applicable. Rav Ya’akov Kamentzky, in his Emet LeYa’akov, asks why the striking, curses, or protests of the offender absolves a person from the Mitzvah of rebuke. He points out that the Rambam (Hilchot Dei’ot 6:7) requires that a person rebuke in a pleasant and calm manner and clearly inform the offender that the rebuke is solely for his benefit. The offender must internalize the loving nature and compassion of the rebuke.

Based on this Rambam, Rav Kamenetzky explains why the striking, cursing, or protests of the offender excuse one from the Mitzvah of rebuke. As soon as the offender strikes, curses, or protests, he is certainly not cognizant of the fact that the rebuke was offered for his ultimate gain and benefit. As a result, the Mitzvah is no longer present. We learn that the person must sincerely love the offender he rebukes.

Therefore, Ya’akov first demonstrated his love and compassion for the shepherds. Then, he was in the proper position to rebuke them for their work schedule.

In Melachim I (18:22-23), Eliyahu offers a public challenge to the false prophets, allowing them to demonstrate their spiritual prowess. He allows them to offer an animal and attempt to entice their gods into bringing down a fire from heaven.  He also harshly criticizes the spectators to commit themselves only towards Hashem. Once the false prophets are discovered as frauds, Eliyahu forcibly seizes and slaughters all of them.

Escaping a death threat from Izevel, Eliyahu escapes to a cave by Har Choreiv: “VaYomer Tzei VeAmadeta VaHar Lifnei Hashem VeHineih Hashem Oveir VeRuach Gedolah VeChazak Mefareik Harim UMeshabeir Sela’im Lifnei Hashem Lo VaRuach Hashem VeAchar HaRuach Ra’ash Lo VaRa’ash Hashem VeAchar HaRa’ash Eish Lo VeEish Hashem VeAchar HaEish Kol Demamah Dakkah,” “He [Hashem] said, ‘Go out of the cave and stand on the mountain before Hashem.’ And behold, Hashem was passing, and a great and powerful wind, smashing mountains, and breaking rocks went before Hashem. [But] Hashem is not in the wind! After the wind came an earthquake. Hashem is not in the earthquake! After the earthquake came a fire. Hashem is not in the fire! After the fire came a still, thin voice” (19:11-12).

The Malbim offers a beautiful explanation of the vivid imagery. By not appearing in the violence of wind, earthquake, or fire, Hashem meant to teach Eliyahu and other leaders that the preferable way to teach people is calmly and lovingly. Eliyahu was acting inappropriately as he displayed anger and force by bringing a drought and killing the false prophets.

We are sometimes surrounded by those who are struggling or deficient in certain areas of their observance.  The Torah commands us, “Hochei’ach Tochi’ach Et Amitecha,” “You shall reprove your fellow” (VaYikra 19:17).  As Ya’akov Avinu taught his descendants, the rebuke must always be accompanied with deep love and compassion.

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