Chapter 6, Law 6
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"When a person sins to another, the other should not hate him quietly
(lit., 'and be silent') as it is stated regarding the wicked: 'And Absalom
did not speak with Amnon either bad or good for Absalom hated Amnon' (II
Samuel 13:22). Rather, he is obligated to inform the other and say to him,
'Why did you do such and such to me and why did you sin to me in this
matter?' [This is] as it is stated, 'You shall surely rebuke your fellow'
(Leviticus 19:17). And if the other responds by asking him to forgive him,
he must forgive him. The forgiver should not be cruel, as it is stated, 'And
Abraham prayed to the L-rd [and the L-rd healed Avimelech...]' (Genesis
This week's law is a clear continuation of the previous'. Last week we were
taught that it is forbidden to hate one's fellow in one's heart. As we
noted, one transgresses this only when the hatred is covert. When it comes
out into the open, the transgression ends. In other words, it is
theoretically not forbidden by the Torah to hate another and to tell him so,
only to quietly hate him in one's heart.
And the idea, as we explained, is that the Torah cannot just tell us we must
not hate. Such occurs in the course of human events -- and there's not a
whole lot we can do directly to control it. But it does instruct us in how
we must deal with our hatreds: Don't bottle them up in your heart and
let them fester. Approach your fellow, and openly work out your
differences. (Or alternatively, realize that you really don't have anything
concrete to tell him. He really never did wrong you. Your "hatred" was only
a result of your own jealousies and pettiness.)
This week we are told virtually the same -- that the Torah forbids hating
one's fellow in one's heart. And further, tells us the Rambam, we must
instead confront the enemy: Step forward and ask our fellow why he acted the
way he did. The result will hopefully be that our fellow will realize his
error, apologize for it, and the apology will be accepted.
This by the way is evidently clear from the verse these laws are based upon.
Last week the Rambam quoted the first half of Levit. 19:17: "You shall not
hate your fellow in your heart." This week he quotes the continuation of the
same verse: "You shall surely rebuke your fellow." At the same time as
forbidding us to hate our fellow secretly, the Torah commands us to step
forward and tell him why (provided, again, we have something constructive to
say). For all parties will benefit if relationships are openly fostered,
both frankly and honestly.
The Rambam illustrates these principles with incidents in Scripture.
Absalom, King David's third son who would later rebel against his father,
despised his eldest brother Amnon for raping their sister Tamar (see II
Samuel 13). He refused to speak to him, whether good or bad. Bottling it up
certainly did not defuse the situation. Two years later Absalom had his
servants kill Amnon.
The second incident the Rambam quotes is from the story of Abraham and
Avimelech, King of Gerar (Genesis 20). When Abraham came to Gerar, he
claimed his wife Sarah to be his sister, and Avimelech promptly took her as
a wife. (See Talmud Makkos 9a that Avimelech was hardly blameless in the
incident.) G-d appeared to Avimelech that night threatening him with death
for taking another man's wife, and punishing both him and the women of the
palace with a plague. After returning Sarah the next morning, Abraham prayed
to G-d to heal Avimelech, which G-d subsequently did.
In future weeks G-d willing, we will discuss how one fulfills the mitzvah
(commandment) of rebuking one's fellow. ('Rebuke' really isn't the word, but
we'll get to it...) However, there is one important idea we should make note
The Rambam concludes that if your fellow does turn around and ask for
forgiveness, you should graciously grant it. This seems straightforward
enough. The Rambam in his Laws of Repentance (2:10) rules likewise that we
should always be forgiving of our fellow and should pardon him when he asks
for forgiveness. But I believe there's a much more important lesson implied
Thus far the Rambam has forbidden us to bottle up our hurts, but instead has
required us to come out with them. Now coming out with them is dangerous
business, as we all know. And there are really two attitudes one may have in
doing so: (1) It hurts me to say this, but I feel we need to address and
overcome this issue between us. Or: (2) I really want to let you know what a
jerk I think you are. If you finally get it out and speak your piece to your
enemy, are you really doing so to foster the relationship, or are you just
finally getting up the nerve to at last give him a piece of your mind?
And so, the Rambam adds one more little detail -- the most critical one of
all: I must be prepared to actually forgive my fellow if he turns around and
apologizes. If I just want to tell him off, forgiveness will be the furthest
thing from my mind. I wouldn't expect it -- nor even want him to
apologize at that point, undermining my allegations. I just want to show him
up for the scoundrel he is after all he's done to me. If, however, I really
mean to resolve our differences, I will be prepared to work things out if my
fellow actually regrets his actions and wants to start afresh.
A few years ago, a rabbi came to me to criticize me about a legitimate issue
(that in itself was arguable, but he approached me with some justification).
Very quickly, however, it turned ugly -- as in name-calling ugly. It was
clear to me (and to him after reflection) that his criticism at least in
part was his way of letting off some steam over a related personal issue he
had with me. (We patched this up long ago and get along quite well. Should
be the worst issue I've had to contend with...)
And this of course exemplifies the true difficulty with this issue -- one
even rabbis can easily err in. The Torah obligates us to rebuke our
fellow. A person approaching his enemy with such a mindset can readily
convince himself he's doing a mitzvah (good deed). But his "mitzvah" can
just as easily be a front for something quite antithetical -- openly telling
one's fellow off rather than only bearing a grudge in his heart. And such
would clearly defeat the entire purpose of the obligation to come forth
rather than hate discreetly. Probably better to hate in your heart than
provoke (or prolong) open confrontation.
For this reason, the Rambam makes it clear that you must approach your
fellow only when you're truly ready for reconciliation. You must approach
him in the interests of working out your differences and making up, rather
than just fanning the flames with even more angry rhetoric. (And as we all
know, we occasionally do approach (usually our spouses) with such in mind,
but something fails along the way and it degenerates back into angry
bickering.) And finally, if you know your hurt it too intense, I would wager
that you should not risk it and approach your fellow at all. Wait until
tempers have cooled and both parties are amenable to true rapprochement.
Finally, this is implicit in the end of Levit. 19:17, the verse we have been
discussing. After stating that we must rebuke our fellow, the verse
concludes, "and you shall not bear upon him a sin." The expression is vague
(purposely so, as the connotation-packed Torah quite often is), and we'll
discuss a few possible explanations G-d willing in future weeks. One idea,
however, is that in rebuking your fellow, you must not bring upon yourself
sin ("bear upon him a sin" would then mean "bear [upon yourself] on account
of him a sin"). Don't, in the course of doing your "mitzvah" of telling him
off, actually net one nasty transgression for yourself. For as with many
high-stakes actions (the sort Judaism is full of), such a confrontation can
either be an terrible act of anger and vengeance, or a beautiful one of
reconciliation and of sanctification of the Divine Name.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org