Peace Of (My) Mind!
“Now listen up,” Reuven said clearly annoyed. “You’re heading for nothing but trouble. You’d better stop before it’s too late. I wish you’d listen to my advice, Ari! I’m getting tired of always trying to tell ya, but talking to you is like talking to the dang wall!”
Ari, the name deliberately changed here, had probably heard similar words a hundred times before. He was a young man of 16 in my alternative yeshiva high school program, Beit Rafael, in Miami. My program was nicknamed “Laz’s Last Stand.” They either made it in my program or ended up in rehab… or behind bars. Most, thank G-d, graduated from my non-graded school and have moved on to lead positive, productive lives.
Ari was a great athlete, full of life and personality, but he had some rough previous experiences in regular yeshiva. He was close to the record, having been kicked out of more than 10 schools in the past six years. Unsuccessful in his close-knit community, he viewed himself as an outcast and had turned to the streets for acceptance. Reuven, a fellow classmate, was trying to offer some words of advice. Ari, it seems, had once again been out all night long doing who-knows-what. He showed up mid-morning, put on Tefillin, pour himself a cup of hot tea, and laid his weary head upon the table.
“You don’t know how good you got it here,” Reuven continued. “But even this opportunity you’re gonna blow just like all the others! You’re gonna locked up, bro… if you live long enough.”
With that, Reuven slammed his fist on the table but Ari was either fast asleep or simply chose to ignore the commotion.
I put my hand out and motioned for Reuven to lay off.
“Look it, “ I whispered to Reuven. “Talk to him when he wakes up. But I think maybe we should try a different approach.”
He shot me a glance of disbelief and remarked “he’s gonna kill himself the way he’s going! Someone’s gotta do something!”
“Agreed,” I responded. “Wholeheartedly. But has this approach ever worked for him? Has it ever worked for him? That’s what he’s been hearing, probably from everyone who knows him, for the past two, three, four years.”
“So what then? We should sit back, do nothing… and watch him slowly kill himself?”
“No. I’m just saying maybe there’s a better way to reach him.”
“Well, while you’re planning I’m gonna continue to yell and shout and smack him around if necessary to shake him out of this madness. He doesn’t need your love, Dr. Laz. He needs some rebuking. Big time.”
I promised Reuven that we’d discuss things together and try to come up with some strategies that might work. But there was this horrible feeling, something that always bugged me but I never quite verbalized it, as if somehow actually expressing the words, the doubts, out loud would give it more validity. Particularly since Kabbalistic (inner dimensions of Torah) philosophy places so much importance on this incredibly powerful force known as speech! So I kept the thoughts to myself. And yet, every so often, it would come bubbling up to the surface, like it was waiting to be validated, to be dealt with. Still I let it remain in the realm of thought and I tried my best to push it aside.
Then, while doing a recent event for the Chabad House in Weston, Florida, the epiphany came and I realized that all those thoughts of “doubt” were there for a solid reason. I had it all wrong - and to a certain extent, we’ve all missed the boat here. Yes I know that sounds like a mighty bold statement but allow me to explain what’s been bothering me all these years and what sort of flash of lightning bolt insight struck me broadside in Weston.
I refer to that tricky and very sensitive notion of setting the other guy straight, aka - reading someone the good ol’ “riot act.” You know the one, this murky grey area of us knowing what’s really proper (or thinking that we do) and putting our friends, family members, and even the “Joe-Shmoes” we don’t know all that well, in line. It’s the one that some folks have made it their special mission - rebuking your fellow human being. This is a mighty sensitive area that, at best, requires “kid glove” treatment and some real thoughtful, deliberate actions - not rash, emotional responses. I speak from some experience, having raised seven children - now all adults on their own. I’ve also been working with alienated teens and individuals with special needs for more than 30 years. Not that I have any definitive answers per se, except that I know that when it comes to the art of rebuking, I usually keep a very low profile. Others, it seems, have given this equal footing and rank it right up there with the “10 Big Ones.” Chabad Hassidic philosophy stresses the angle that we have to help each other out on all levels. But it also teaches us that when it comes to spiritual growth, the real work, the hard work, starts with the “man in the mirror” - with ourselves first.
What’s bugged me all these years is that the Torah uses a double whammy expression to convey this message of rebuking others. It says rather bluntly, “hocheah tochiach” - which is usually translated in English as “you should surely rebuke;” not just the one word indicating “rebuke” but really get out there and give ‘em the ol’ what-for! Knowing what we do about human nature, I ask you a question. Do we really need a double expression from the "Boss" telling us to rebuke someone? Was G-d Almighty worried that we might not get in there and tell somebody, “hey you’re messing up and I know better - I know what’s best for you!”? Wouldn’t it have been enough for it to say in the Torah just one Hebrew word of “tochiach?” So, in this public confession, it’s been this double whammy expression that’s had me troubled for all these years. There are those who seem to thrive on putting others in line, of telling them what to do and what not do, and getting some sort of holier-than-thou satisfaction of putting them in their place. They’ve become the “rebukers,” the crusaders to save us all… from ourselves!
It did help immensely to study Tanya and listen to the deep words of the Alter Rebbe on this double expression of rebuke. The Alter Rebbe stresses the latter part of that verse where it says you should surely rebuke “es amitecha” - the “one that is with you.” In other words, only those that you are very close with, the Alter Rebbe explains in the 32nd chapter of Tanya, should rebuke. Interesting that the number 32 in Hebrew corresponds to the word “lev” which means heart. Furthermore, he writes, it has to be done with love and compassion. Let’s face it here, folks. No one enjoys being put in his or her place. Nobody relishes the experience of being on the receiving end of a personal “dis.” We usually only accept this sort of stuff from a loved one. A stranger telling us off doesn’t sit too well, and in fact, often leads to the opposite desired effect. We tell the guy to take a long walk off a short pier!
Change doesn’t come easy and changing harmful or negative behaviors is tricky business - and often a long, uphill battle. Here, the Alter Rebbe tells us, it just might work if, in fact, someone who’s close to the guy messing up does it. The rebukee, if you will, knows that the rebuker is a close friend or family member and has his or her best interest at heart.
The Rebbe echoes this notion in one of his profound discourses on the Torah portion of Shmos. He notes that mussar is referred to in the Torah as “musar avicha.” Musar is often regarded as forcing yourself or others to look within and work towards self-improvement. The Rebbe points out that musar works only when it’s connected to “avicha,” - your father. On other words, when a loved one, like our dad, points out our faults, it’s like the medicine going down a lot smoother with the spoonful of sugar. The Rebbe further explains that rebuking was something the prophets did - but only on directives from G-d Almighty. Despite the fair amount of rebuking going on, as far as I can tell, there are not too many holy rebukers out there who can claim with a straight face that G-d told ‘em to do so.
I was comforted by the Rebbe’s profound words, but quite frankly, the question remained. Why the double expression of “rebuke rebuke” in the Torah? Everything is Divine Providence, and my answer to this problem came at that Weston weekend where the theme dealt with increasing in our acts of kindness. Although I was the main speaker, I had the pleasure of hearing Rabbi Spalter give over a powerful Shabbos sermon to his congregation. It was the Torah portion of Chayeh Sara but the Rabbi said he wanted to continue on the theme of the previous Shabbos - how Avraham excelled in the mitzvah of “hanochas orchim” - taking good care of guests. Although Avraham was the epitome of kindness, still he pretty much coerced his guest to “bentch” after the meal - to thank G-d for the food. It was his way of spreading this notion of the one true G-d throughout the world. If the traveler wasn’t exactly too interested in doing this, Arvaham would give him a choice. Give thanks to G-d Almighty or pay up!
“Let’s see now,” we can imagine Avraham tallying up the goodies. “That’ll be $400 for the cactus juice cocktail. $770 for the whole-wheat pitas. And the burger? Forget about it! That’s a special today at $950!”
The travelers would, of course, flip out when hearing the excessive charges. Their mouths probably dropped wide open.
“Hey,” Avraham might add, “this isn’t the Upper West Side or Boro Park. Or South Florida. This is the dessert, amigos, and yes, consider yourselves mighty lucky indeed that you found my humble place - Avraham & Sara’s Tent! Now pray… or pay!”
Rabbi Spalter asked a bomb of a question. If Avraham’s intention was to get people to praise Hashem, to increase this new spiritual awareness of One G-d, why did he wait to put his plan into action after the meal? Why not before the meal? Think about it. Before the meal Avraham had ‘em in the palm of his hand. This was the desert and Avraham’s tent was the only stopover for miles. The guests came in hot, tired, hungry and probably very, very thirsty. Then was the time to set his agenda forward. Before the meal they were completely vulnerable & open to anything. If Avraham wanted them to stand on their heads and sing the aleph-beis in opera style, they would have done it. Anything to get to the drinks and food! So why did Avraham wait until after they were fed and thoroughly enjoyed their equivalent of Dr. Brown’s iced-cold black cherry soda along with a dessert McDovids?
Rabbi Spalter explained that this episode in the Torah teaches us something very deep; we’re simply not allowed to take advantage of others. When they first arrived, the guests had a profound physical need. They were hungry, tired and thirsty. The Torah is teaching us that at that moment, we are required to help - to get the food, drinks and chairs. Once these physical needs were met, once the guests had eaten and felt relaxed, then and only then did Avraham talk about his mission, his agenda.
Kindness must’ve been in the air at the Weston Shabbaton, for the answer to my “dilemma of the double rebuke” came flying through in shining colors. This dramatic insight is in the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah and is, in fact, discussed by the most famous Biblical commentary, Rashi. As a Torah reader, I couldn’t help but notice that this word of “hocheach” is actually mentioned twice in the portion of Vayeira; both times when the parsha talks about the episode of Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, being sent on a mission to find a wife for Yitzchak, Avrahams’ son.
It’s a big mission and Eliezer, with Avraham’s personal instructions and blessing, succeeds big time. Standing near a watering hole in the dessert, Eliezer puts this wheel into play and calls out to the “G-d of Avraham” asking for some tell-tale signs to know who is the right pick, the “beshert” for Yitzchak. He’s basically looking for someone who is a mentch, who shows kindness - even to a stranger in the dessert. In other words, a woman for Yitzchak who follows in Avraham’s footsteps. If she offers me water to drink, Eliezer stipulates, and also offers to give water to my camels, then this is the one that “hochachta” for Yitzchak. Seems like a mighty strange word to use here. It’s the very same letters for the word rebuke. Rashi picks up on this unusual expression here and says that it actually means “b’rerat - to choose.” My cerebral cortex went in high gear. B’reira in Hebrew means to choose, to select, & to clarify. Maybe that double expression of “rebuke rebuke” is mistranslated? Perhaps it also means more to clarify than to simply rebuke? The act of choosing and selecting is part & parcel of the act of clarifying. It’s a matter of shedding some light on the options and selecting the best possible choice.
I continued to follow the Torah reading and then the same word came up again a mere 29 verses later. Here Eliezer is introduced to Rivka’s infamous brother, Lavan. He repeats the whole episode to Lavan, coming to the watering hole in the dessert, meeting Rivka and how she offered drinks to himself and to his camels, and that G-d has “hochiach” this woman (your sister Rivka) for Yitzchak. Again this unusual word pops up and Rashi is quick to point out that it means, “clarify, to inform.” Then Rashi drops the bomb. He adds the following words in his commentary here. “And so too for every expression of hochacha in the Torah - it means to clarify the matter!”
Bingo! My problem resolves itself in a flash. Later on in the Torah we encounter this double smack-down expression of “hocheach tocheach” and yes folks, it has indeed been mistranslated pretty much in every English version I’ve read of the Torah. Whereas all these outdated versions put in print “you shall surely rebuke!” - Rashi is telling us that it really should read, “you shall surely clarify.”
It’s no petty small difference here. It’s a difference of night and day. Both may try to get the person to “see the light” but one does it with a hammer – which has little chance of success, the other does it, with love, compassion and some “seichel” - common sense. Furthermore, it’s not a matter of coming across as holier-than-thou. It’s not even coming from a “religious” perspective of “saving” this lowlife and getting another notch on the belt. It’s simply a matter of shedding some light on the subject and helping the person in need to get things straight - to see with more clarity. Then and only then is he or she in the proper position to decide, to choose which direction to go. Our job then, Rashi so clearly (pardon the expression here) points out is not to rebuke but to illuminate! Not to give ‘em a piece of our minds, but to offer them peace of mind.
Let’s go back to the situation with Ari, and more specifically how Reuven and I decided to handle things. It was a plan taken right out of Rashi’s sage interpretation and advice. First, I gave Reuven the “green light” to speak with Ari. Sometimes, more often than not, teenagers listen to a friend before a teacher. I told Reuven that words of rebuke, the ol’ fire & brimstone routine, always fell on deaf ears, and thus, a new strategy was warranted. “Ari doesn’t respond to that. Why not try a total unemotional vibe. Put out the consequences of his behaviors. Spell it out. Maybe just maybe, he’ll make some better choices. But in any case, I’d wait till he wakes up and has a good meal under his belt first.”
It wasn’t until a few days later that Reuven caught up with Ari. I couldn’t help eavesdrop from the opposite corner of the room as the conversation took a different turn.
“Ari,” he started. “Let’s analyze the situation here. Things are good now cuz business is rolling. But eventually you’re gonna get busted. It’s just a matter of time. If you stop now you’ll make less money – at least for now until things pick up in a kosher way, but you’ll have a clean slate. If you carry on this way, you’re probably looking at 10 years minimum jail time, maybe more.”
Ari tuned in because Reuven wasn’t laying any guilt trip or holier-than-thou number on him. He simply put the cards on the table.
“One path might be tougher at first,” Reuven continued, “but you won’t have to worry about jail time, or messing up your life. The other is great for now, you’re riding high, but sooner or later the bubble’s gonna burst. Think how it’ll be then. For your friends and family. For you!”
I was amazed when Reuven suggested that they write down the choices, the pros & cons with all the consequences on paper. Maybe just maybe, I thought to myself, with the situation all spelled out and clarified, along with the concern & friendship of a loving friend, Ari will make better choices.
Rashi is telling us that words of rebuke do very little to change the situation. Clarification, on the other hand, places the onus of choice on the person involved, without the guilt and free of any rebuker’s ego.
Torah is often compared to light. In this regard, the deeper we look into the Torah the clearer and sweeter things become. Thanks Rashi. I owe you one. And maybe we all do.