Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
"These are the words that Moshe spoke to all
Israel across the Jordan, in the desert, in the
plain, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel,
Lavan and Chatzeiros and Di-Zahav." (1:1)
All these "places" are allusions to sins
committed by the Jewish people during their
forty years of wandering in the Sinai Desert.
Moses rebuked them only by insinuation so as
not to embarrass them. (Rashi)
The "words" refer to Moshe's strong words of rebuke. Moshe Rabeinu
(our teacher) begins sefer Devarim by reminding the Jews of the
many national shortcomings and sins that had occurred since their
Exodus from Egypt.
It is interesting, notes the Chidushei HaRim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of
Gur zt"l), that for the most part the subjects of Moshe's rebuke - the
people who had actually sinned - weren't even alive any more. They
had all died during the forty years in the desert. He spoke to their
children. So why rebuke the children? What had they done wrong?
Nothing. But, says the Chidushei HaRim, every person, in every time
period, if he will examine himself under the penetrating light of the
Torah and Moshe Rabeinu's words, will find that in some way he too
has fallen victim to the mistakes of the dor ha-midbar (generation of
the desert). These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel.
This is unusual. Rebuke is usually specific to its subject. Moshe, as
leader of the Jews, had a personal connection with every Jewish soul.
He was able to contain within his words rebuke that applied to each
and every Jew in all generations. It is said that when the Ba'al Shem
Tov would rebuke his disciples, they would often argue afterwards as
to what had in fact been the main point of the Rebbe's rebuke. Each
disciple had understood the words as they applied to his personal
The Tzemach Tzedek zt"l once delivered a scathing critique of a
certain behaviour. Afterwards, a number of his disciples approached
him, each one complaining that the Rebbe had publicly embarrassed
him, seeing as how his scathing rebuke had obviously been directed
at him. Replied Rabbi Menachem Mendel, "Did I mean each of you?
Yes, in a way, I did. You see, I am a like a hat-maker. The hat-maker
fashions a hat and places it in his store window. People come in and
try the hat on, until eventually someone finds that it suits his head
perfectly. Whom did the hat-maker have in mind when he made this
hat? Why, he made it precisely for the very customer who finds that
it fits him! So, whoever feels that my words apply to him - for him, in
fact, my criticism was meant."
Perhaps, though, the most critical aspect of tochachah (rebuke) is
not how it is said, but how it is received. One who is open minded to
self-betterment, and constantly seeks to improve his character, finds
rebuke in almost everything he sees and hears, and loves it. "Rebuke
the wise, and he will love you (Mishlei 9:8)." And for one who closes
his eyes and mind to criticism, there are no words, no matter how
eloquently spoken, that will change him. "Do not rebuke the scorner,
lest he hate you (ibid)."
The Talmud tells the story of a certain sage who was always the last
to leave Beis HaMidrash (the Study Hall) in the evening and the first
to arrive the next morning. One morning, he arose only to find that
some farmers had already begun working the field. He took this as
a rebuke: If they, whose work involves only the material fruits of the
field, manage to arise so early, then I, who toil in the Torah of
Hashem, how much more so should I be getting up early! From then
on, he arose even earlier.
The Ben Ish Chai relates the story of one time the Yetzer Hara
(Satan) approached Hashem: "I have a complaint about a certain
man - specifically about R' Asher the carpenter," he said.
"Why, what could you possibly have against R' Asher," asked
Hashem, "he is amoung the righteous individuals of the world?"
"True," said the Yetzer Hara, "but he hasn't been truly tested! I
propose You allow me to take him to one of my theatres, just for one
evening. Then we shall truly see where his piety stands."
That evening, as R' Asher walked home from his shop, he felt drawn
by a sudden uncontrollable urge to enter the theatre. The performers
were acting out a comedy/satire, and the audience sat mesmerized;
applauding, laughing, and cheering at the appropriate moments. R'
Asher stood at the back of the theatre, not uttering a word. The
longer he stood, the happier the Yetzer Hara became. He could
sense how the theatre was casting its satirical spell over the previously
pious Jew. For hours R' Asher stood and watched, until, close to
midnight, it all ended and everyone went home.
R' Asher too went home. His wife, who knew he always came home
right after work, was frantic with worry. "Where have you been?" she
"At the comedy theatre," he replied simply.
"Aha, and just what did you see at the theatre," she asked
sarcastically, not for a moment believing that her husband, the pious
R' Asher, would ever go to the theatre, which was renowned for its
profanity and vulgarity.
"I learned how poorly I serve Hashem," he replied.
"I see, and you learned this at the theatre?"
"Yes actually. You see those men that go to the theatre, they, like I,
have worked a full day. Yet this does not deter them from sitting for
many hours with hardly a break, attentively taking in every moment
that the theatre has to offer. And all this - for folly and nonsense!
How much more so should I go to the Study Hall at night, to study
the holy words of the Torah, with energy and enthusiasm!" And from
then on, R' Asher studied even longer and harder than he had in the
Text Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.