This week’s Torah portion contains the holiness code, a set of laws meant to teach the Jewish people how to live lives of sacredness and meaning by walking in God’s footsteps. It begins, “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God am Holy.”
It then continues by laying out a curriculum of ethical and holy living. It speaks about revering one’s parents, not putting a stumbling block before the blind, not defrauding a fellow person, and not rendering a legal decision in favor of someone on the basis of their economic status.
However, of all the these laws, the one I find myself quoting the most appears right in the center of the list:
Reprove your kinsman and incur no guilt because of him (Lev 19:17).
Living in the world we do, we are all too often faced with the difficult task of speaking truth to others. When we see hatred, bigotry, or ignorance, when we perceive that a person is about to cause harm to others or themselves, we are obligated, with the full force of Jewish law, to speak out. Years later, the NYC police department would summarize this important teaching with their adage, “If you see something, say something.”
However, as important as the first clause of the command may be, it is in fact the second clause that has, throughout history, perplexed biblical commentators. What exactly does it mean to “incur no guilt” because of another.
The answer has tended to fall into three camps:
The first tradition believes that if you see someone sinning and do nothing, a piece of you is liable for that sin. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, at times of great moral turpitude, “some are guilty but all are responsible.” Or to quote one of the most important teachings on personal integrity in the Talmud”
Rav and Rav Hanina and Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Habiba taught...Whoever can forbid his household (to commit a sin) but does not, is seized for (the sins of) his household. (if he can forbid) his fellow citizens, he is seized for (the sins of) his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is seized for (the sins of) the whole world (Shabbat 54b)
Here, we learn that we should rebuke, as much for our own good as for that of the sinner. If we are all connected and I am liable for my silence, then it makes sense that if I rebuke someone, I have saved myself from incurring guilt. This interconnectedness is a powerful idea in Jewish law. Since we are all “responsible for one another” (Shevuot 39a) then your sin is clearly my problem.
However, this is not the final story on the law’s second clause. Contemporaneous with this statement another group of Rabbis read the law as mandating the way one should go about rebuking a sinner. As Rashi teaches, summarizing their opinion:
[THOU SHALT IN ANY WISE REBUKE THY COMPANION] AND NOT BEAR A SIN ON ACCOUNT OF HIM — i. e. though rebuking him thou shalt not expose him to shame (lit., make his face grow pale) in public, in which case you will bear sin on account of him (cf. Sifra, Kedoshim, Chapter 4 8; Arakhin 16b).
In essence, the “sin” one must avoid when confronting someone will not be the result of speaking too little, but of talking too much. Jewish law is very clear that we must preserve a person’s personal dignity. Public shaming should be avoided at all costs. Understanding that when a person is mortified, all the blood leaves their face, our Rabbis teach that if you make someone appear as a corpse, you are judged just like the person who literally made them so.
Yet, as important as these two teachings are, I was struck, when reading about this law, that Ibn Ezra (12th C, Spain) takes a completely different tact. Ibn Ezra notices that directly before this law, there is a command to “Do not hate your brother in your heart.” Understanding that often, if two verses are next to one another, they might be thematically linked, he creates a story.
you should surely rebuke: lest you suspected him of something and it was not so, and this is the explanation of, and you shall not bear a sin for him - since [if so] there would be a punishment to you for his sake.
Though terse, this statement is incredibly powerful. Avoid anger, gossip, and distance by confronting a person directly. You may be angry at a person for a perceived slight but you don’t know their side of the story. Perhaps they didn’t know they hurt you and would absolutely repent and apologize if given the chance. Maybe your anger pecks at your relationship with them eroding it until you slip up one day and decide to hurt them. Or, you carry around this pain with you and focus your anger on someone else.
Ibn Ezra teaches that evil can arise from holding something in. The best course of action is to confront it head on. Rebuke another and avoid the consequences of bottling it up.
In a way, Ibn Ezra summarizes the other two opinions in his own. Whereas the first is societally important and the other interpersonally, his is both. Honest discourse is key. The goal of rebuke is to take what is below the surface and bring it forward. Yes, we are all connected. True we should protect another’s feelings in the process. But perhaps most of all, we should not be afraid to engage with the truth because by doing so we will bring more honesty and balance in the world.
As Judah the prince once taught in the Talmud:
What is the straight path that a person should travel? He should love rebuke, for at times when there is rebuke in the world, pleasantness comes to the world, goodness and blessing come to the world (Tamid 28a).