“You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your fellow, and not bear sin because of him.” [19:17]
We learn several concepts from this verse. We learn a sense of communal responsibility, built upon love and brotherhood. We learn that if your neighbor is doing something wrong, you should not dislike him because of it, but should discuss the issue with him. We have a responsibility to rebuke… but why?
The Iglei Tal explains: “it is the nature of a person, that when he sees his neighbor doing something wrong, he decides that this person is evil. Even if he sees the neighbor later, doing something which could be seen in a positive light, nonetheless he will attribute sinister motives to the neighbor, for he has already stamped him with the seal, ‘wicked.’
“However, if he would rebuke him after the first time, he might learn that the neighbor had full justification for his actions, or the neighbor might admit his guilt and promise not to do this again. As a result, when the neighbor did the second action, the first party would judge him favorably.
“For this reason the Torah says, ‘you shall surely rebuke your neighbor’ when you see him doing something wrong, and [the phrase ‘do not not bear sin because of him’ can also be read:] ‘do not place sin upon him’ – do not consider everything he does afterwards as sinful, for now you can [fulfill the commandment to] judge him favorably.”
We have a commandment to rebuke, yes, but in order to increase love and brotherhood, in order to ensure that each party understand his or her neighbor’s actions and motivations in the most positive possible light. The commandment to rebuke is not, Heaven forbid, a commandment to increase discord and needless hatred.
All too often, it seems that we remember the “surely rebuke” part, and forget the phrases which precede and follow it. We are very quick to say, “You are doing something wrong.” If we know that this is a Mitzvah, we defend ourselves by pointing this out – “I’m supposed to tell him; he’s doing something wrong!” But if we “hate our brother in our heart,” how can we go on? The Talmud says, “correct yourself; then correct others.” The word used in the verse for “fellow” comes from the word “nation” – this is a member of your nation, your relative, your brother. Is it not obvious that unless you love this person as a brother, it is impossible to fulfill the Mitzvah?
The person discussed in this commandment is one who is making an error. Those who act out of hatred and malice are not included here – for they are no longer “your brother.” If someone is making an innocent mistake, not realizing the severity of his or her actions, you can only correct this person with love. Anything else will cause him or her to hate, or act with malice.
The Chovas Yair writes: “when we give rebuke to someone, it is inappropriate to label him wicked; just the opposite – one must turn to him with words which uplift him and draw him close, such as ‘it is beneath your dignity to do something like that.’ Then, it is possible for the rebuke to have a positive effect.
“‘You shall surely rebuke’ – if you say rebuke to someone, you must consider him ‘your fellow,’ meaning your friend, a person as valuable and worthwhile as you; ‘and do not place sin upon him’ – do not label him a sinner, for then he will turn away from you entirely, and nothing positive will emerge.”
This is as simple as a short comment from Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki: “Do not bear sin because of him – do not embarrass him in public.” The Mitzvah of rebuke is the opposite of public embarrassment – it is an investment in the other party, a belief in his or her ability to explain, or change if necessary.
I have heard several wonderful, warm people mention that when they were young, their parents would stop them from doing something by saying in Yiddish, ‘Es pas nisht far dir’ – it is not fitting for you, it is beneath your dignity. Perhaps it is the children of those parents who grow up to be warm and wonderful! If we are to grow as a community, it must be with love and cooperation, not loud, public anger and discord. If we love each other, then we can work together to change, improve and grow.
Text Copyright © 1997 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.