The Mitzvah of Tochecha: Tough Love

Lo tisna et achicha bilvavecha; hochei’ach tochi’ach et amitecha v’lo tisa alav chet.

Do not hate your brother or sister in your heart; you must admonish, yes, admonish them or you will bear some of their sin. (Leviticus 19:17)

This week’s Torah portion is named Kedoshim, derived from the opening instruction of the parsha, “Kedoshim tih’yu” – “You shall be holy.” (Lev. 19:2) The verses that follow describe the ethical and interpersonal behavior necessary to achieve this quality of holiness. The instructions culminate in verse 18: “V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha” – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Here is our Golden Rule. Yet how do we enact it? What actions and attitudes must we practice to align ourselves with this ideal?

The answers lie precisely in the verses leading up to this declaration. These instructions make clear that the love we are to show our neighbor is not merely some generalized good will, but an active engagement in their well being, just as we would like others to show to us.

I find this chapter to contain the seeds of a lifetime of discussion – I should say, given that we Jews have been engaged with Torah for millennia, many lifetimes of discussion – on how to lead an ethical and loving life. Here I will examine but one verse, and even that exploration will only open the door to our inquiry. It is the challenging instruction I cite above, that immediately precedes the Golden Rule:

Do not hate your brother or sister in your heart; you must admonish, yes, admonish them or you will bear some of their sin.

To love one’s neighbor as oneself, one must be willing to admonish them when you see them missing the mark with their behavior. If you do not attempt to intervene, the Torah insists that you bear some measure of responsibility for their failures.

Now of course we are each ultimately responsible for our own behavior. But the Torah is clear that our task is to become a holy community, concerned with each other’s welfare. We are our brother’s keeper. How do we intervene when we see our brother or sister on a path of harm?

This is a challenge with no easy answer, a veritable minefield of wrong moves, as any of us who have tried to lovingly and thoughtfully intervene with a loved one knows all too well! But the Torah insists that it is our responsibility to try. Fortunately, centuries of wise Jewish commentators give us guidance on how to proceed:

Rabbi Yehudah Arie-Leib, an early disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, (c. 1760) was known as the “The Mochiach of Polonnoye”. A mochiach is “one who rebukes.” That is, R. Yehudah Arie-Leib specialized in the art of rebuke! He notes that we must pay attention to the entire verse 17, because the first half of the verse establishes the conditions necessary for the second half: “The one who rebukes needs first of all to check himself, to see if there is any grudge or resentment in his heart, any negative or constricted feeling, regarding the person that he is about to rebuke. Only if it is clear to you that that you “do not hate your brother in your heart” are you permitted to rebuke him.”

Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman (Poland, 1899-1943) was murdered by the Nazis after the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. Rabbi Friedman teaches on the same verse: “What is the connection between the two parts of this verse, “do not hate” and “rebuke, yes, rebuke”? The explanation is that true rebuke is possible only with one whom we love, whose behavior touches our heart and whose path we desire to make better, like a parent who rebukes her own child. To the extent that a person is close to someone, the love is greater and the rebuke is more serious. And rebuke that comes from love has greater influence. You cannot rebuke one whom you hate, and in any case the rebuke would have no effect. Only by means of “do not hate” is it possible to carry out ‘rebuke, yes rebuke.’”

Rule Number One: First be clear about your loving intentions. Only then may you proceed.

It was taught in the Baal Shem Tov’s name, that one must first give rebuke to oneself, and only then to one’s fellow—and then it will become clear that there is within oneself a bit of the other’s wrongdoing. Read the end of verse 17, “v’lo tisa alav chet”, not as “or you will bear some of their sin”, but rather as “and don’t put all the sin on them!”

Rule Number Two: Examine yourself for the same negative qualities or actions that you find yourself wishing to rebuke in others. Be humble in your efforts, not self-righteous.

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, Egypt, 1135-1204) teaches that one is forbidden to embarrass or shame the sinner when you rebuke them, for it is also a sin to shame someone, especially in public. The Rambam derives this rule from yet another reading of “v’lo tisa alav chet”: you will bring sin upon yourself if you rebuke your neighbor in a manner that shames or humiliates them.

Rule Number Three: Choose your words, your tone, and the timing of your delivery so as to avoid shaming or humiliating the person you are trying to assist with your intervention. Consider speaking with them in private.

A problem: all of these righteous and well-intentioned cautions might cause us to never say anything, lest our motivations or execution be impure! Rabbi Akiva (Israel, 2nd C.) is quoted as saying, “In this generation there is no one who knows how a rebuke ought to be worded.” Yet the Torah is emphatic as it repeats the command hochei’ach tochi’ach – rebuke, yes, rebuke. This is important. Love without honesty is anemic, even false. True friendship demands that we hold one another up to a high standard. Sometimes you just have to get in your friend’s face, for their own good, and damn the consequences.

Our tradition looks to Abraham as our model. In Genesis, God is considering whether to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their sinfulness. God muses, “Should I hide from Abraham what I am doing?” (Genesis 18:16) and determines to tell Abraham God’s intentions. The Torah then declares, Abraham stepped forward and said to God, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there are fifty innocent people in the city? …Far be it from you to do such a thing!” (Genesis 18:23,25)

Abraham was willing to admonish even God, when Abraham sensed that God was going to sin by perverting justice and harming the innocent. Abraham was willing to risk all, step forward and speak truth, even at his own peril, even to God.

Rule Number Four: Love demands that we find a way to intervene.

Love demands that we sometimes must risk all, even the relationship itself, in order to try to help someone we love. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself means that we must ask ourselves how we ourselves would like to be treated. Do I not truly want others to get in my own face when I am headed down a harmful path? Rabbi Yossi Bar Hanina (Israel, 3rd C.) quoting the Book of Proverbs 9:8, ‘Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you.’ taught: “Any love that has no rebuke in it is not true love.” (Breishit Rabba 54:3) I want my friends to keep me honest. I don’t always like it, but I definitely want it. I am a mass of contradictions, selfish and honorable, petty and noble, and I need help keeping track. I know I need help. I know that creating a holy community, as our parsha instructs us, is a road we will forever be traveling, and that I will lose my way without companions. I welcome their loving guidance, and I will offer mine as well, in the name of love.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan