Rebuke: Words of Love
Rabbi Tarfon said, “Be amazed if there is anyone in this generation who is able to rebuke another. If one says to another, ‘Remove the twig between your eyes,’ the other will reply, ‘You remove the beam between your eyes.’”
The gemara on our daf teaches about the mitzvah of tochacha, which is a Torah command to rebuke another person who is involved in a transgression. Why? Because of love for him. The source for this mitzvah is the verse, “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You shall reprove your friend…” (Vayikra 19:17) One who is motivated by love, and not by hatred, is enjoined by the Torah to take action in the face of transgression and “not to stand idly by the blood of your brother.” (Vayikra 19:16)
Rashi explains Rabbi Tarfon’s statement about a twig and a beam as follows: If one says to another “remove the twig” (meaning do teshuva from your small transgression), the reply will be “remove the beam” (meaning your large transgression). Rashi explains that since no one is completely without any hint of transgression, the above dialogue will occur, and even a well-intentioned person’s words will not succeed in convincing the other to cease his transgression.
Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching in our masechet is in line with another teaching found Bava Metzia 107b: “Adorn yourself and afterwards adorn others.” Before one admonishes or attempts to correct others, it is proper for one to first rebuke himself. The rebuke will obviously be more effective if it originates from a source that is itself not polluted. People can sense if rebuke is motivated by love, anger, or righteous indignation, and it will only be effective if love is the principle factor behind it. An esteemed Torah scholar once
entered a taxi (in Israel). The taxi driver was about to turn the key in the ignition, when the rabbi put his hand on the driver’s hand and asked him, “Do you work on Shabbat?”
The driver looked into the rabbi’s eyes and felt incapable of admitting that he transgressed Shabbat. On the other hand, being an honest person, the driver could not deny his sin. The driver immediately took an oath in his heart never again to drive on Shabbat, and turned to the rabbi and said, “No, I do not work on Shabbat.”
The rabbi smiled and replied, “Good, let’s go.”
From that time on, the taxi driver and his family made a commitment to observe Shabbat. Of course, the taxi driver would probably have responded quite differently to anyone else, and the rabbi would not necessarily have made this inquiry of any taxi driver. However, the effectiveness of the rebuke was due to the spirit in which the words “rebuke” were said.
For detailed, annotated discussion of the laws of tochacha and their sources, refer to After the Return (Feldheim Publishers) and Avotot Ahava (in Hebrew, by the same publisher).
- Erchin 16b