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“These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, concerning the Wilderness, concerning the Aravah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan, and Chatzeiros, and Di-zahav” (Devarim 1:1).

Rashi brings the words of Chazal: “Because these are words of reproof and he is enumerating here all the places where they provoked G-d to anger, therefore he suppresses all mention of the matters in which they sinned and refers to them only by a mere allusion contained in the names of these places, out of regard for Israel.”

A little further, the Torah tells us exactly when Moshe delivered these words of reproof to the Israelites: “It was in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month, when Moshe spoke to the Children of Israel, according to everything that Hashem commanded him to them” (Ibid. 3).

Rashi there tells us the significance of this date. “This tells us that he reproved them only shortly before his death [Jewish tradition holds that Moshe died on the seventh day of the twelfth month]. From whom did he learn this? From Ya’akov, who reproved his sons only shortly before his death…. And on account of four things one should not reprove a person except shortly before one's death - that one should not reprove him and again have to reprove him; and that his fellow whom he reproves should not, when he afterwards happens to see him, feel ashamed before him, etc; as it is set forth in Siphri. And similarly, Yehoshua reproved Israel only shortly before his death; and so, too, Shemuel…, and so, also, David reproved his son Shlomo only shortly before his death.”

Everyone is commanded to reprove those whom he can influence, especially family members. If he does not reprove them, he is also punished for their sins. If he does reprove them and they do not listen, he has, at least saved himself from punishment on their behalf. Hashem explained all of this, in detail, to the prophet Yechezkel (in Chapter 33), comparing him to the guardian of a town who does or does not sound the alarm to warn of the danger of the approaching enemy.

However, we learn from these Rashis a very important lesson which can be compared to the laws of kindling the Chanukah lights which are supposed to burn at least half an hour. Although the law allows that if the lights were inadvertently distinguished before the allotted time, one is not required to relight them, and he has fulfilled his obligation; nevertheless, this is only true if he originally lit them under conditions which would normally allow them to burn for the designated time. However, if, for example, he placed the menorah in a place where a strong wind was blowing, with no chance of burning the proper amount of time; then he did not abide by his obligation at all and must, indeed, kindle them again.

Similarly, although one who reprimands another has fulfilled his obligation whether or not the fellow complies; nevertheless, this is only true if he delivered his words of reproof in a proper manner; one which is conducive to obey them. If, on the other hand, his reprimand was conveyed in a way which would “turn off” the recipient, he has not done his job at all.

There are many particulars which are included in this rule of “How to rebuke a person properly.” One of them, mentioned in this Rashi, is not to cause the recipient embarrassment. Another important rule is never to give reproof out of anger. One must be calm and collected, with total control of what he says and how he says it, in order to properly rebuke anyone.

I recently saw in an excellent book (I don’t remember which) that one of the reasons we find it difficult to rebuke our children is the timing. When children are behaving, he writes, people find it unfitting to rebuke them for something they previously did wrong. The kids would probably object and say, “Was now, when we were so good, the time to bring up our misdeeds of the past and ruin the whole atmosphere?” So, therefore, what does a “smart” parent do? He or she waits until the kids are bad and have to be reprimanded anyway; then he pours out his wrath on them and adds to the list all of the sins of the past too.

But this is wrong – and counter-productive. It is based on a misunderstanding of what reproof and reprimand is all about. It is not a means of bone-picking, as some might think, which comes from feelings of resentment and the yearning for revenge which everyone has towards those who hurt him. G-d forbid! The source of reproof and reprimand must be love! One’s love for another, especially those whom he loves most – his family members – should encourage him to want to help them do what is right – for their benefit. If so, the best time to “coach” them is when they are well-behaved and the atmosphere is warm and friendly. Because if given properly, out of love, reproof and reprimand will never ruin the atmosphere but improve it! On the other hand, if given in anger and from resentment, it simply will not work and he will not have fulfilled his obligation at all.

I was a young teenager when the Torah Giant, Reb Aharon Kotler ztvk”l, passed away. I had the privilege of accompanying the older students of our yeshiva, who traveled, in the yeshiva bus, to the funeral in Lakewood, New Jersey, home of Reb Aharon’s yeshiva. It was a rare event, all “the guys” together on one bus, and there was a spirit of levity among many of us. The traffic on the highway was terrible as thousands of Jews, heading for the same destination, competed for the limited road space. When our non-Jewish, black driver, Lee, with his cigar in his mouth, was cut off by some over-ambitious chassid, he shouted at him in Yiddish: “Vehr geharget (drop dead!).” It was such a funny scene that we all broke out in laughter.

One of our Rashei Yeshiva (yeshiva heads), on the bus with us, was Rabbi Yosef Nevenansky z”l, who was a prime student of Reb Aharon. He was very hurt and angry at our immature, disrespectful behavior. It was obvious that we were missing the entire point of our journey. He decided that he must reprimand us. He stood up, at the front of the bus, and, in a fatherly, loving tone, suppressing all of his irritation, he said one, solitary, sentence: “But remember, bachurim (young boys); we are not traveling to a wedding!” He then returned to his seat. The message was crystal clear and successful. We understood and realized our mistake. We were well-behaved and in the proper mood the rest of the way.

It was surely one of the best demonstrations of proper reproof and reprimand I ever witnessed in my life. I am sure that had the rabbi stood up and ranted and raved at us, telling us how bad we were and how angry he was, etc. etc., it would not have been nearly as effective. In many cases it would not have helped at all; and in some cases it would have even been counter-productive.

I know very well how hard it is to do this right. But let’s try. For our own sake and for the sake of those we love so much. If we can master this, then we’ll all be very happy, in this world and the world-to-come.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel