Sermon: What is the Purpose of Rebuke?

Dear Friends,

I might be missing something, but it appears to me that the entire concept of rebuke, at least as it appears in this morning’s parashah and elsewhere in the Torah, has disappeared from our society. To be sure, there is ample criticism in the media (and of the media), there is condemnation, and there is sniping galore at figures in any and all positions of power or fame. Yet the Torah’s brand of rebuke, a long litany of punishments that will result from straying from the path of righteousness, is nowhere to be found. I wonder why that is.

We tend to concentrate on berating people for what they have done rather than on warning them in advance of the dangers of improper behavior that they might yet do. Products of all kinds contain warning labels  – be careful, this coffee is hot, McDonald’s warns us – but don’t you get the sense that those warnings are for the protection of the manufacturer or service provider against future lawsuits, rather than to ensure the safety of the consumer?

Some rebuke, for sure, centers on what the wrongdoer has already done, and seems to verbally punish them for those actions, but other rebuke is future oriented, and it is that rebuke that is the most helpful. Rebuking someone for a more minor misdeed could prevent a more major, perhaps even catastrophic later wrong.

What is really lacking is moral rebuke, it being relegated to the domain of religious institutions, which are all increasingly being abandoned. Without the guidance and influence of our synagogues and churches, how many people are effectively taught the very real implications of sinning against ourselves and others, or the ultimate consequences of not tending carefully to our natural resources? Why is it that moral instruction has been stripped from public life? Perhaps the aversion to appearing preachy or to representing a specific religion constrains public moral education, but that is unfortunate if it is true. As we well know, a code of moral conduct need not favor one religion over another – there is a large set of humanist values that transcend any one given religious tradition. Back when I was in school, this was called “citizenship,” since to live by these values would make you a good citizen.

Rebuke helps the person delivering it as much as it does the one receiving it. The 19th C English theologian Joseph Barber Lightfoot once said, “So then, when I speak to you, I speak to myself. If I seem to warn or to rebuke you, it is not so much you, as myself, to whom the warning or the rebuke is addressed.” I think there is a lot of truth in that – true rebuke does not come from a place of holier-than-thou spiritual advantage, but rather as an important warning or corrective to those whose well-being concerns us and as a reminder to ourselves as well.

Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs, treats the subject in several places, since understanding rebuke and heeding it is at the very center of the quest for true knowledge. For instance, in Chapter 3, verses 11 and 12, we read, “Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son; do not abhor His rebuke. For Whom the Lord loves, He rebukes, as a father the son whom he favors.” How many times did we tell our own children that we disciplined them because we love them? Sadly, it is a lesson that might take many years to fully grasp, if it is grasped at all. Those who cannot or will not take constructive criticism or who will not be rebuked are encased in the concrete vaults of their own egos. It is those who are open to learning from rebuke, who will respond humbly and sensitively to discipline, who reach a higher spiritual and intellectual plane. The word used for discipline, in fact, in Proverbs, is mussar, and those of us who have studied the Jewish ethical instruction called Mussar know how worthwhile this pursuit can be in self-betterment and growth – this growth is ultimately more for the purpose of better carrying the burden of the other than it is for mere self-actualization.

But how do we know when rebuke is needed? Is it only our own anger or irritation with another person that prompts it? If so, that is not true rebuke; that is a mere lashing out for our own comfort or for service of our own ego. If however, our rebuke comes from a place centered on the good of the other, that is concerned with the other’s safety, health, growth, and success, then it is righteous and warranted.

I pray that we will never stand in need of rebuke, but that if we do, we will take that rebuke seriously, heed it, change our ways, and vow to remain on the right path, even so far as offering rebuke to others when it is needed.

Shabbat Shalom!


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