but how long do these sermons have to be? Shouldn’t we just be able to say, “repent!” and call it a day.
You know who you are, and you know which sins I am talking about. Why should I have to say any more?
Unfortunately it is not so simple. The Torah has a mitzvah, “you shall surely give reproof to your friend!” And yet the Talmud says that this is among the hardest mitzvot in the entire Torah.
Because how do we give proper reproof to another person?
This was the sin that tripped up Moshe. When they were first freed from Egypt the people complained. Moshe took his stick and hit the rock. Forty years later they complained again. This time Moshe was commanded by God to speak to the rock, but Moshe hit his rock as he had done earlier.
Some commentaries suggests that the incident with the rock represented a metaphor regarding Moshe’s relationship with the people as their leader. The generation that left Egypt required a type of reproof that used the stick. The next generation was a diiferent type. They required reproof with carrots, a softer approach. Moshe knew how to lead the earlier generation, but God saw that he was not able to adapt to the new generation and therefore the people required a new leader to take them into the land of Israel.
The passover seder has the section of four sons specifically to illustrate the wisdom of Solomon who said, “educate a child according to his
If a person requires a soft touch and we are too hard, or if a person requires some tough love and we are too soft, it could be disastrous and push people away from the Torah.
In the Tanach, the single best example of giving reproof was king David’s adviser, Nathan the prophet.
King David’s most egregious personal sin was his sordid affair with Bat Sheba, a married women.
His affair with Bat Sheba left her pregnant. Her husband, Uriah was a soldier in David’s army. David conveniently cleaned up his mess by sending Uriah to the front lines where he was subsequently killed in battle.
The Talmud says that David could easily have justified his indiscretion. The custom in David’s army was for every soldier to “divorce” his wife before going to battle. This was done so that in the unfortunate event of the husband becoming missing in action, the woman could remarry.
So technically, Bat Sheba was single, even though Uriah had every intention of marrying her when he returned.
And David could hardly be blamed for Uriah’s death. He was a soldier and this was one of the risks that soldiers take when they go to war.
David’s adviser Nathan knew that a direct rebuke could be easily rebuffed by David.
So he took a different approach. He came to David and said, “There was a rich shepherd who lived next to a poor shepherd. The rich shepherd had hundreds of sheep where as the poor shepherd had only one sheep. This one sheep was more of a pet. The sheep lived with the family, ate with them at meals, and even slept with the family in bed at night.
One day, the rich shepherd was entertaining a guest. Rather than take from his own flock, he climbed over the fence, stole his poor neighbor’s beloved sheep, shechted the sheep and served it to his guest.
Nathan asked David, what should be done to this rich shepherd?
To which David answered that the shepherd’s crime was so egregious that he should be given the death penalty! Or at least he should have to pay four times the price of the sheep he stole!
At that point Nathan said that this was just a parable. You, David, are the rich shepherd!
Nathan’s parable hit home and David declared, I have sinned before God!
Understand, Nathan’s parable was very specific to David. After all, what was David’s profession before he was king? He was a shepherd. And before the battle with Goliath when others questioned his capability of fighting against a giant, David answered that as a shepherd if a bear would come and snatch a sheep David would chase after the bear and wrestle the sheep from his jowls.
David was not just a shepherd, he cared for his sheep, and would risk his life for them. He understood the pain of the poor shepherd.
Nathan’s tactic was to make David understand the pain he caused to others by externalizing the sin, and by drawing an analogy to something he knew would hit home with David.
Not all of us have a friend like Nathan who can give us the kind of reproof that will penetrate our hearts.
So where can we go to get reproof?
Ben Zoma says who is wise? The person who can learn from every man. One understanding of Ben Zoma’s words is everyone can receive criticism from someone like Nathan. The truly wise person can internalize words of criticism that come from people who don’t give the best reproof.
When someone who we do not respect or hold in contempt throws out criticism, is our response dismissive? Do we regard the rebuke as unfounded? Or do we accept it and ponder whether there is an element of truth that we can learn from? If we can do that, we are truly wise.
When someone gives you rebuke or criticism, no matter where it comes from, or no matter how unfounded we think it is initially, we should thank the person who gives it to us, and be brutaly honest with ourselves to see if there are ways we can use this gift to improve ourselves.
The prophet Yechezkel prayed that God should remove our heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh.
May we be blessed with a heart that is open to rebuke, and may we return to Hashem, and be inscribed int he book of life.