90 The Most Difficult Mitzvah
Chananya Weissman
April 21, 2021

What is the most difficult mitzvah? The answer is subjective, of course, but a few mitzvos would be near the top of most people's list: Shabbos, kashrus, honoring one's parents, avoiding lashon hara, maybe even fasting on Yom Kippur. (I would include the mitzvah to wipe out Amalek, which most contemporary Jews loathe and prefer to define out of existence, but since it is exceptional in many ways I will leave it to the side for purposes of this discussion.)

I submit for your consideration a mitzvah that would be unlikely to appear on anyone's list, yet it is constantly before us and extremely difficult to perform properly: the mitzvah to rebuke your fellow Jew.

The Torah commands us in Kedoshim: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow Jew, and you shall not bear a sin on his account.” (Vayikra 19:17)

When we see a Jew straying from the proper path, we are commanded to rebuke him. As with every mitzvah, there are boundaries and guidelines that must be followed; otherwise, not only does one fail to perform the mitzvah, he may be committing a sin. Many people make excuses to wiggle out of this uncomfortable mitzvah, while others go to the opposite extreme and rebuke with abandon.

There are numerous reasons for rebuking a fellow Jew. Chazal connect them both to the warning that precedes this commandment (not to hate one's brother) and the one that follows it (not to bear a sin on his account). Here are the primary reasons for rebuking one's fellow:

1. You might incorrectly suspect him of wrongdoing and bear a sin because of this (Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni). By confronting him, you can clarify the matter and avoid sin.

2. You might incorrectly suspect your fellow of sinning against you. If you ask him to explain his behavior it might turn out that it never happened, or that his intentions were different, or he might rectify his wrongdoing (Ramban and Chizkuni).

3. It is a sin to hate someone in your heart, and a mitzvah to bring your grievances to his attention (Rambam). This will hopefully restore true peace (Rashbam).

4. One who fails to rebuke his fellow Jew bears responsibility for the sin as well (Targum, Ramban, Chizkuni).

Contrary to common assumptions, the purpose of this mitzvah is to benefit the one giving the rebuke at least as much as the one receiving it! He gets to air his feelings, instead of allowing them to eat away inside him (unhealthy on many levels). He gets to clear up any misunderstandings right away, which often create needless fights that take on a life of their own. If his fellow really sinned and accepts the rebuke, what an incredible merit that is for both of them! Even if his fellow is an incorrigible sinner, by rebuking him one spares himself culpability.

Here's where the mitzvah gets difficult. Not only must we contend with the discomfort of rebuking others and expressing our grievances (which comes naturally for some, but not those with good hearts), we have to be extremely careful how we go about it. Here are some of the guidelines:

1. We are not allowed to embarrass the person, especially not in public (Arachin 16B). We should not speak harshly to him, or shame him, or call him an embarrassing name, whether he is a person great or small (Rambam De'os 6:6-8).

2. Even a student must rebuke his Rebbe, though he must do so with wisdom and respect (Bava Metzia 31A).

3. One must rebuke his fellow even a hundred times, up until his fellow gets angry at him, curses him, or strikes him (Arachin 16B). The Rambam rules stringently according to the last opinion.

Rabbi Tarfon wondered whether anyone in his generation knew how to properly give or receive a rebuke. “If you tell someone to remove a splinter from between their teeth, he will tell you to remove the board from between your eyes.” (Ibid.)

Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri testified that he used to complain about Akiva (later the great Rabbi Akiva) to his Rebbe when he saw him acting improperly, and Akiva was struck many times because of this. Nevertheless, Akiva only loved him more for it! This is a fulfillment of Mishlei 9:8: “Do not rebuke a scoffer, lest he despise you. Give rebuke to a wise person, and he will love you.” (Arachin 16B)

Clearly Chazal considered this one of the most difficult mitzvos. It hasn't gotten easier in our hypersensitive, narcissistic, social media age.

These principles provide critical guidance for the situation in which we find ourselves. We see people all around us endangering themselves and others with masks and poisonous injections, persecuting those who defy the death cult, and violating the Torah in many ways. We have tried to rebuke them with love and concern, and we are fortunate if they merely disregarded us without becoming abusive. We wonder if we should continue trying to reach them, or how.

Despite the mitzvah to rebuke one who might listen, one should refrain from rebuking someone who will not listen (Yevamos 65B). The scoffer will turn any rebuke against you, no matter how reasonable and well-intentioned. As Rabbi Tarfon observed, he will try to make a hypocrite out of you. A sincere, intellectually honest person would never react this way. There is no reason to get into arguments with such people, and nothing good will come of it.

If we know the person is good at heart, it is virtuous – and to a certain extent obligatory – to keep trying even if they reject your initial rebuke. We can take solace in the fact that we are performing a mitzvah, and we are not responsible for the choices he ultimately makes. Furthermore, a genuine rebuke brings a certain spiritual awareness and enlightenment deep inside the sinner's soul, even if it is not perceptible. This is a necessary first step toward eventual repentance (Sefer HaKuzari 5:20, beginning with “The fifth introduction”). It is important for us to plant seeds in people's minds even if we don't see their eventual fruit.

Finally, the Rambam provides a critical distinction: “When does this apply? In matters between man and his fellow. However, in Heavenly matters, if his fellow does not go back [on his evil behavior] from the private rebuke, we shame him in public, publicize his sin, vilify him to his face, scorn him and curse him until he returns to what is good, just as all the prophets did among Israel.” (De'os 6:8)

It is outside our scope to determine the line between an ordinary sinner (which is virtually everyone to some degree) and a villian against Heaven. However, it is certain that those in positions of power and influence who are devoting themselves to corrupting society, promoting a tyrannical agenda, turning families and neighbors against one another, normalizing medical blackmail, and destroying people in the name of “the greater good” are hopelessly on the wrong side of this line. It is not our responsibility to give such wicked people gentle rebukes, but to expose their wickedness and oppose them.

Do not be ashamed or afraid to do this. It is a fight for the sake of Heaven and all that is good.

In sum, we have an obligation to try to reach whoever we can. Even if our efforts are frustrating, we are saving ourselves from culpability, and we may be lighting a spark deep inside them. When it comes to scoffers and those who become abusive, we are absolved and should move on. When it comes to wicked people waging war against us, we need to take off the gloves and say it like it is.

May God strengthen us to perform this most difficult of mitzvos with wisdom and sincerity, may He bring our people back to good, and may He destroy the evil soon in our days.