Letting It Go
Chapter 6, Law 9
"If one's fellow sinned to him and he does not want to rebuke him or
speak to him at all because the sinner is particularly simpleminded or his
mind is unsound, and he forgives him in his heart without hating or rebuking
him, this is a pious practice (Heb., 'middas chassidus'). The Torah (Levit.
19:17) was particular only regarding one who hates [his fellow on account of
the wrong he did him]."
This week's law continues and concludes the discussion of the previous few
weeks. In past weeks we discussed the obligation to rebuke one's fellow. As
Leviticus 19:17 states, if your fellow wrongs you -- or you otherwise catch
him sinning, you must not bottle it up and hate him within, but you must
rather come forward and ask him why he acted the way he did. For as we saw,
direct (or perhaps indirect) confrontation is ultimately the best means of
Here the Rambam adds an important caveat. Although open and frank discourse
is often the best means of patching up relationships, at times the offender
is just beyond reason. Some people are just so impervious to spirituality
and healthy relationships that there's really no point attempting to reason
with them. And provided you are not bottling up animosity (transgressing
"You shall not hate your fellow in your heart"), you can just let it go.
Don't hate him. Feel bad for such a G-dless, pathetic individual. Someone
who lacks any religious inclinations, who cannot be led to consider that
anything exists beyond man and the immediate, is frankly not even worthy of
your hatred. Fairly condescending, but basically correct.
I don't have a whole lot to add to the Rambam's wise words this week, but I
do believe it's reasonable we could extend his words somewhat. In the
Rambam's mind, the only sort to be beneath constructive criticism is the
imbalanced, someone who is so crazed or corrupted as to be beyond rational
discourse. And such doesn't rate very high in the mind of a rationalist like
the Rambam. As we all know, however, there are many who are perfectly sane
and levelheaded, yet who just lack the moral bearings to be receptive to our
sermonizing. And to them as well, silence may be the better course.
Not long ago, I attended a lecture given by a visiting scholar who happened
to be an old friend from rabbinical college, R. Yosef Veiner. During the
course of the lecture, he quoted the historical episode of R. Shimon ben
(son of) Lakish, generally known in the Talmud as Reish Lakish. As the
Talmud (Bava Metsiah 84a) and other sources attest, he began his career as a
bandit. He later met up with the strikingly handsome R. Yochanan, one of the
leading scholars of the first generation of the Talmud. R. Yochanan,
recognizing Reish Lakish's great potential -- in whatever he endeavored --
offered Reish Lakish the hand of his own sister -- whose beauty was even
greater than his own -- in marriage if Reish Lakish would only agree to
study Torah. The deal was struck and Reish Lakish eventually grew to be
Talmud scholar nearly equaling R. Yochanan.
The story thus far is quite well known, appearing in a prominent location in
the Talmud. Another detail of it, mentioned in a much lesser-known Midrash,
is not. The Midrash adds the following postscript -- that Reish Lakish,
after "seeing the light" and heading off to study Torah, never again
returned to the cave in which his accomplices were hiding. In spite of their
past close kinship, he never once made contact with them again. As far as
they knew, he had simply disappeared off the face of the earth.
The speaker who mentioned this was interested in a different issue and moved
on from there. In passing, however, he made an interesting observation. Why
did Reish Lakish, who clearly enjoyed a strong kinship with his former
comrades, never again return to them? Why not take advantage of his
association and use it to influence them for the better? If anyone could
have reached them it was he. Why leave them to their vomit if he, no doubt
more than anyone else, might have brought them back to G-d?
Perhaps the answer is that Reish Lakish realized he could not be the one to
approach his former cohorts. They still knew him as fellow bandit. If he
would now approach them as bandit-turned-rabbi -- and the only one among
them who now knew better -- it just wouldn't have worked. There would be too
much "Who does he think *he* is?" in the air. The friction created by the
sudden spiritual chasm which had formed between them would have created too
much ill will. The uneasy sense of difference would have made open and
candid dialogue almost impossible.
And this too is yet another consideration we must keep in mind in
approaching those less religious than we. When a person becomes more
involved with religion, he may find that his past friends and relatives are
the hardest -- rather than the easiest -- for him to reach. They may share a
rapport with him, but of a different sort entirely. And more than anyone
else, they may resent that one of their number -- perhaps one they knew as a
small child -- now returns thinking he's better than the rest of them and
alone knows better.
Thus, as we've observed in past weeks, the mitzvah (obligation) to rebuke
one's fellow is not a simple one, but one which requires a serious judgment
call -- whom to approach, what to say, and whom to avoid altogether. And as
in many of the great challenges of life, there is no one simple answer. For
true service of G-d requires not only great erudition in Torah study, but
also the keen understanding of the workings of our fellow man.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org