Parashat Kedoshim: The Art of Tochecha

This week's parasha, Kedoshim, contains the mitzvah known as tochecha, or rebuke.  This mitzvah is one of the mitzvot bein adam v'chaveyro, (mitzvot regarding human relationships) and is incredibly difficult to observe properly.  The Torah teaches:
Do not hate your kinsman in your heart. Rebuke your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against one of your people.  Love your neighbor as yourself. I am Hashem. (Leviticus 19:17-8)
Even a first glance at the psukim from the Torah shows us that we are dealing with a complicated topic.  Why should we rebuke?  One reason is so that we don't "bear a grudge," and so that we "love our neighbor."  So maybe being honest with one another leads to more love?  On the other hand, the verses also mention that we should "incur no guilt" because of our sinning neighbor.  This seems to suggest that if we don't speak up when someone is doing something wrong, then we are just as bad as the person who is sinning, and will bear the guilt as well.   So, the rebuke is for the purpose both of stopping the sinning and improving the relationship

Thousands of years of commentary have led to some very insightful guidelines on how to successfully and properly rebuke--and how not to.  Some of these guidelines are obvious such as the teaching that one must rebuke in private and in a gentle way (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 29:15).  Another obvious one is the teaching in Magen Avraham 608:3 which quotes the Sefer Chasidim and teaches that one should only rebuke a person he knows, not a stranger, as a stranger may hate or take revenge against the rebuker.   Some of these guidelines are not as obvious, such as the Talmud which states:
One may only rebuke if he thinks his friend will listen.  If he knows that he won't listen, it is forbidden to rebuke. (Shabbat 55a)
Let's say you know that your friend is addicted to smoking but he's not going to stop.  You know this because he shares his struggle with you but tells you he's not ready to take on the challenge of stopping.  Or maybe you have heard other people rebuke him for smoking, but you know he has not reacted well.   In that scenario, telling him he should change would not be a mitzvah--it might even be forbidden.

But many, many people continue to rebuke their friends or loved ones for things without even really thinking about whether or not the recipient of the rebuke is going to hear it.  Think about how you have felt when someone has rebuked you for something that you were not prepared to change.  It damages the relationship.  And we learn in the Torah that one of the reasons for the mitzvah of rebuke is to help the relationship, and not bear a grudge.  It is a mitzvah that has to be handled with care.

While I was learning about the mitzvah of tochecha I decided to to do a little "self test," to see how I score.  After all, we are all different, and some of us probably err on the side of giving too much tochecha, and some of us err on the side of giving too little.  Which was I?  I made myself write down a list of 5 times I recently gave tochecha, and 5 times I recently refrained from tochecha.  It was not that easy.  I thought about it a long time, and could not come up with 5 for each.  Here are a couple things that I recently gave rebuke about:

--Told a friend she shouldn’t have written an email impulsively when she agreed to volunteer for something she really doesn't have time for, and now she will have to dig herself out of a committment.
--Acted in a sort of “rebukeful” way when a friend didn’t have his taxes done on time and mine had been done very early.

When I reflected on these, I realized that they were both unnecessary.  I did come up with one example that I felt was necessary, but I don't know if I did it in a gentle way or not.  I know I tried.

I also have a list of things that I refrained from giving tochecha on.  I can't list them because they are too private but suffice it to say that I didn't give tochecha because I didn't want the consequences.  I was either avoiding conlift/ confrontation or thought it would hurt the relationship--regardless of whether or not it would change the person's behavior.  I'm not sure those reasons are "permission" to refrain from tochecha or not.  Just because I don't want to have a difficult conversation doesn't mean I shouldn't.  So my personal cheshbon hanefesh on tochecha left me feeling pretty satisfied that I take the mitzvah seriously and thoughtfully, but completely baffled as to whether I in general give too much or too little tochecha.

This is a complex mitzvah, and my original assumption that we each probably err on one side or another was probably wrong.  I know it was for me.  I know that I will continue to keep this mitzvah in mind in the weeks to come and pay attention to how often I avoid it and/or fulfill it, but fulfill it incorrectly.  I welcome anyone else's brave stories of tochecha success or failure by writing a comment on the blog.