This week, the Torah not only teaches us the basics of getting along with one’s neighbor, it also codifies the elementary rules of behavior that set a moral standard for social etiquette. You shall not be a gossipmonger; you shall not stand idly by your brother’s blood; you shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall not take revenge. (Leviticus 19:16-18). In one matter, however, the Torah also exhorts us to act in a way that many may believe would lead our neighbors to distance themselves from us. The Torah tells us to reprove our fellow-Jew. Obviously, the concept of “live and let live” is foreign to Judaism. In fact, the mitzvah of reproof is put right next to the verse, “you shall not stand idly by your brother’s blood.” Spiritual distress in the Torah’s view is equivalent to physical distress. Just as we cannot stand idly by when someone is drowning, so, too, when someone is drowning spiritually we must also act. But the Torah does more than just tell us to admonish – it tells us how.
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart; reprove you shall surely reprove him and do not bear a sin upon him.” The last part of the charge is difficult to understand. What does the Torah mean, “and do not bear a sin upon him”?
Rashi explains that the Torah does not want you to sin while reproving your fellow – “do not embarrass him publicly.”
The actual text, however, seems to read to not bear a sin upon him, the sinner. How can we understand that?
As the Chofetz Chaim traveled around Poland and Russia to sell his works, he entered an inn in Vilna and beheld a disturbing sight. A burly young man was about to devour a hen that lay on his plate roasted and stuffed. A tall stein stood next to the succulent fowl, its rim flowing with cold brew. All of a sudden the man picked up the entire hen and stuffed it into his mouth. He washed down his meal with a giant gulp of beer, leaving the stein nearly empty. The Chofetz Chaim had never seen a Jewish person eat like that, let alone with out a bracha (blessing before food)!
He turned to the innkeeper and inquired, “Tell me a little about this man, I’d like to talk to him.”
“Oh!” smirked the host while waving his hand in disgust. “There’s nobody to talk to. This young man never learned a day in his life. The cantonists captured him when he was eleven and he served in the Russian army for 15 years. He hardly observes any mitzvos. It’s amazing that he even eats kosher!” Then he smiled. “But I’m sure I can count on him for a three-course meal every Thursday night!”
The Chofetz Chaim was neither shocked nor amused. He simply walked over to the former soldier and shook, his greasy hand warmly. After a warm greeting the Chofetz Chaim introduced himself and spoke. “I heard that you actually survived the cruel Russian army of Czar Nikolai and you never were raised amongst your people. I am sure that many times the terrible officers tried to convert you or at least force you to eat non-kosher. Yet you remained a steadfast Jew!” Tears welled in the Chofetz Chaim’s eyes as he continued talking.
“I only wish that I that I would be guaranteed a place in the World-to-Come as you will be. What strength! What fortitude! You have withstood harsher tests than sages of old.”
The soldier looked up from his plate and tears welled in his eyes too. He leaned over and kissed the hand of the elderly sage. Then the Chofetz Chaim continued. “I am sure that if you get yourself a teacher and continue your life as a true Torah-observant Jew, there will be no one in this world who is as fortunate as you!”
According to the biographer of the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi M. M. Yasher, the soldier became a pupil of the Chofetz Chaim, and eventually became an outstanding tzadik (righteous Jew).
Perhaps with the words, “do not bear on him the sin,” the verse is telling us much more. It tells us not to focus on the action of sin alone when admonishing someone. The Torah wants us to find a positive aspect that will raise the holy soul from murky depths.
It is easy to enumerate your friend’s misdeeds – and perhaps even easier to tell him off. But, that is not the goal.
The Book of Mishlei tells us: “He who acclaims evildoers as righteous, will be cursed. But those who admonish will be blessed.” (Proverbs:24:24-25) Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (c.1505 – c.1584) of Sefad explains that the two verses work in tandem. They teach us that though false flattery is abhorrent, when used to admonish by finding the good in those who have strayed, it is to be commended. The Torah wants us to build a person, and elevate him instead of thrusting the burden of his sins upon him. In that manner, you won’t bully him, you will build him.
For when finding faults in others, we bear a great responsibility. Not only do we bear the difficult and sensitive burden of proof, we bear an equally difficult and sensitive burden of reproof.
Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.