G-d Up Close
Chapter 6, Law 7(a)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"If one sees his fellow sin or following an improper path, he is
obligated to return him to the better [path], and to inform him that he is
sinning to himself with his evil ways. [This is] as it is stated, 'You
shall surely rebuke your fellow' (Leviticus 19:17).
"When one rebukes his fellow, whether in matters between the two of them
or in matters between him [the sinner] and G-d (lit., 'the Omnipresent'),
he must rebuke him privately (lit., 'between him and himself'). He should
speak to him gently, in a soothing (lit., 'soft') tone, telling him that
he is only saying this to him for his benefit and to bring him to the life
of the World to Come.
"If his fellow accepts his words, it is good. If not, he should rebuke him
a second and third time. And so too, he is continuously obligated to
rebuke his fellow until the sinner hits him and says to him 'I will not
"Anyone who has the ability to prevent [others from sinning] and does not
prevent [them] is held to blame (lit., 'grabbed') for the sins of all
those he could have prevented."
The Rambam this week is continuing to discuss the obligation to rebuke our
fellow. In past weeks, he discussed this obligation in the interpersonal
sense -- how to properly react when another person sins to us. Here he
broadens the topic, discussing the general obligation of rebuke, both when
our fellow sins to us personally and when he sins in a manner not directly
pertaining to us.
The Rambam's first states that we must rebuke our fellow gently. We must
do so in a manner which clearly conveys we are approaching our fellow out
of love and concern and mean only the best for him. He must know we like
and care about him and are approaching him with that frame of mind, and of
course it must really be the case as well. We discussed last week how easy
it is to convince ourselves we're doing the "mitzvah" (good deed) of "You
shall surely rebuke your fellow," while in reality it is really a front
for once and for all telling him just what we think of him.
Leviticus 14 discusses the plague of leprosy ("tsara'as") as it pertains
to houses. If a person finds certain colored spots on the stones of his
house, he must notify a priest who then comes to the house to determine if
the spots are leprous. During the course of examination and purification,
the afflicted walls of the house are generally broken down and the leprous
stones removed and replaced.
Now the Sages tell us that leprosy is visited upon individuals as
punishment for certain sins, one of the primary ones being gossip (Talmud
Erchin 16a). Yet here, note the Sages, there was a silver lining to the
affliction. During the forty years Israel dwelled in the wilderness, the
inhabitants of the Land of Canaan, anticipating Israel's eventual
invasion, stashed away most of their treasures. Much of it was stored
behind false walls in their homes. Thus, when the priest would destroy the
leprous wall, a treasure would be discovered within (Vayikra Rabbah 17:6,
brought in Rashi to v. 34).
My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu) noted that this bonanza
cannot be viewed as a *reward*. We already learned that leprosy comes as a
*punishment* for misdeeds. Further, most people would not want their homes
damaged and made temporarily uninhabitable even if their nsurance policy
would reimburse them handsomely.
Rather, explained R. Zweig, the hidden treasure served a crucial purpose.
When G-d afflicts us and informs us we must improve our ways, it is
difficult for us to take. Whenever we're rebuked we resent it and become
defensive. We find fault in our detractor, criticizing him for his own
faults, no matter how irrelevant they are to the issue at hand. Who does
*he* think he is telling *me* what's wrong with me? Look how *he* acts
some of the time, etc. And the original rebuke, whether appropriate or
not, often backfires hopelessly.
And criticism received from G-d does not fare a whole lot better. Our
reaction is not humble resignation to the fact that we must mend our ways,
but frustration and annoyance. We become too aggravated and preoccupied to
start thinking spiritually and penitentially. If anything, the sum total
of our theological introspection consists of the two words "Why me?" What
did I ever do to G-d that He afflicts me so? Why can't He just leave me
alone (really an awful thing to ask for)? And besides, I have far too much
going on in my life to take any serious spiritual inventory just now.
For this reason, G-d, in the course of punishing us, hands us a free gift.
And it is His way of saying something like this: "I may be punishing you,
but I want you to know I still care. I'm not doing this out of anger and
Divine wrath, to put you down and to crush you, but because I want what's
best for you. I want you to recognize your faults which warranted your
punishment, correct them, and return to Me. And here is a small token of
My feelings to show it."
I'd like to extend this idea and illustrate it a little further. To be
honest, this isn't what I intended to write when I started this class (I
never quite know what I'm going to write until it's written -- my hands
seem to have a mind of their own), and it's a bit off the subject. But I
feel the concept is an important one, and a key means of recognizing
Divine providence in our lives -- if we are only so perceptive as to see
Several years ago, shortly after my father, R. Azriel Rosenfeld OBM
(www.torah.org/learning/halacha-overview), first became ill (he would die
a few months later of cancer), was one of the darkest points in my life.
My mother wanted me back stateside (from the Holy Land) as soon as
possible, even though my wife and I had just been blessed with another
child. So I found myself heading to the airport a short time later.
Between the baby and the other children we were then blessed with, my wife
was not coping well (putting it mildly). (She recalls just starting to
make the next day's lunches for the older kids at 12:30 AM -- shortly
before the infant would wake up for his next feeding.) It was not an easy
time all around.
Anyway, everything about that trip was just horribly depressing. I didn't
want to leave Israel at all, I was loath to leave my wife and family in
such a state, and above all, I was terribly upset there was a need for me
to come altogether, seeing my father's health deteriorate so rapidly.
(After the diagnosis, the doctors gave him 3-4 months to live (we never
told him; it wouldn't have made a difference anyway); he lived somewhat
Anyway, I arrived at the airport enormously depressed and completely
exhausted. Coincidentally (not really, but so it seemed...), two places
before me in line was a fellow I knew slightly from years earlier in
rabbinical college. I remembered who he was but not much more than that,
and would have at most made some polite small talk (not that I was really
in the mood). He however recognized me immediately. His first words to me
were: "How is your father doing?"
It turns out that unknown to me, his mother lived in the same apartment
complex my parents had recently moved to. So not only did he know and
recognize me, but he was one of the few who knew my father's story in any
detail. And he too had lost his father relatively young to cancer. He was
traveling to America on business but was planning to stay with his
widowed mother throughout.
I almost can't describe what solace it was at that dismal hour to have
someone who knew, who sympathized, and who could relate. (He is also an
exceptionally sweet and caring fellow.) And it occurred to me afterwards
that this is just G-d's way in life. Even when He punishes and afflicts,
He sends His messenger of comfort. For He lets us know that even when He
deals with us most harshly in life, He is still watching over us and He
Our forefather Jacob, when he was forced to send his beloved son Benjamin
down with his other sons to Egypt to purchase food (see Genesis 42-43),
offered a prayer for the safety of his children (43:14): "And may G-d
Almighty grant you compassion before the man, and he will send you your
other brother [Simeon] and Benjamin." The Sages observe that the name
Jacob used here for G-d ("Sha-kay") also means "which is enough," and in
effect he was saying: "The G-d who says to the world 'It is enough!' will
say 'It is enough!' to my travails, for I have not been granted
tranquility since my youth..." (Bereishis Rabbah 92:1, brought in Rashi to
that verse). Jacob, who had one of the most difficult lives in Scripture,
recognized that the G-d who had put him through it all would soon see that
he had suffered enough, and would ultimately bring about his salvation.
For G-d, even while afflicting us, wants us to receive that message. This
is not vengeance. It is carefully and precisely measured chastisement,
mercifully instructing us to mend our ways. I am not abandoning you; I am
watching over you every step of the difficult way. And if we are only so
perceptive as to see it, we will recognize G-d's helping Hand guiding and
supporting us throughout the entire judgment, tempering every step with
mercy and compassion.
This too is one of the great messages of the Rambam this week. When we do
find need to criticize our fellow, it must be done in such a way as to
convey our love and concern. And in so doing, both parties will hopefully
grow immensely from the encounter -- both closer to G-d and closer to each
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org