Jewish law commands us to hold up the mirror of truth to a person who is doing something wrong or disturbing to us—or our simmering resentment could lead to a variety of harmful actions we might later deeply and fully regret.
The Ten Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur offer us a once-a-year invitation to reflect on our relationships with loved ones: Where have I missed the mark? How can I best seek forgiveness and forgive? How will I know if my actions have caused hurt?
But even the most honest self-reflection has its limits. That is why sometimes we need others to hold a mirror up to us so we can see ourselves clearly. It takes courage to invite another to hold before us the mirror of truth. It also takes courage to be the one to hold up the mirror of truth so a friend or partner can see himself or herself more clearly.
And Jewish tradition expects us to do no less every day of the year.
In Torah there is a vital commandment which is often overlooked: tokhehah. Usually translated as “rebuke,” tokhehah requires us to confront a person who is doing something wrong or disturbing to us.
The Roots of Rebuke
We first learn about this commandment in Leviticus 19, “The Holiness Code” of the Torah. The chapter begins: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” In verse 17 we read:
You shall not hate your brother
in your heart;
you shall surely rebuke your fellow
and not bear sin on his account.
We may wonder: can the Torah prohibit feelings, such as hating one’s brother, over which we may have no control? Hatred, though, is not just any feeling. This intense emotion is born of anger, resentment, or hurt that has been allowed to fester in our hearts. The venom of hatred increases when anger is unaddressed.
Imagine: Your friend Dan just cancelled your dinner plans for tonight. It’s the fifth time Dan has broken plans at the last minute, and you had forgone other plans for this. You’ve never confronted him about his past behavior, as he tends to respond defensively and you haven’t wanted to make waves. Now you’re furious. You might find yourself lashing out at Dan in a more hurtful way, venting your frustration to a friend (“Dan flaked on me again!”), or pulling back from Dan emotionally—perhaps even ending the friendship.
Simmering resentment is dangerous terrain. It can lead to a variety of harmful actions we may later regret, as, for example, committing the sin of lashon hara (evil gossip) by telling others about Dan’s behavior.
Fortunately, Judaism hands us an antidote: “You shall surely rebuke your fellow.” Tokhehah is the key—so much so that Torah introduces the mitzvah with a double command for special emphasis: “hokhei-ah tokhiah”—“you shall surely rebuke.” Moreover, we are instructed: “…You shall surely rebuke your fellow and not bear sin on his account.”
It’s a Sin?
What is so sinful about failing to rebuke? Judaism, explained the 20th-century French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, is a religion of “radical responsibility.” If we fail to speak up in the face of a wrong, we may become complicit in the act and even contribute to its perpetuation. Shabbat 54b elucidates: “Anyone for whom it is possible to protest the wrongdoing of a member of his or her household and does not protest, is held accountable for [the wrongdoings of] the members of his household. So too in relation to the members of his city; so too in relation to the whole world.”
Imagine: You are having lunch with colleagues at work and Jim makes a racist joke. Everyone laughs, but you find the joke offensive. Do you say something or let it pass? You don’t want to appear self-righteous or lacking a sense of humor, but what if everyone walks away thinking there’s nothing wrong with a racist joke?
Imagine: Your friend Jenna once struggled with a drinking problem, then stopped cold turkey. You recently witnessed her drinking again. You’re concerned. You know it’s a sensitive issue, and she’s been under a lot of stress at work. Should you say something or remain quiet?
If you say something, you risk incurring your friend’s anger. But if you remain silent, might you be indirectly responsible for Jenna’s continued drinking? What if your silence is construed as consent, helping Jenna convince herself that there’s nothing wrong with her behavior?
The Soap Opera Principle
Failure to rebuke may also lead to tragic misunderstanding. I call this “The Soap Opera Principle,” as soap operas run on the fuel of misinterpretations.
Imagine: A friend tells you he saw your fiancé kissing another woman at a business convention. You break off the engagement and refuse to speak to your former beloved, only to discover months later, to your horror, that the situation was completely misread. Had you only confronted your fiancé, you might still be together.
The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra says, simply, “You shall surely rebuke… lest you suspect him in some matter, and it was not so.”
Tokhehah & Love
Over the long term, practicing tokhehah with our loved ones may also result in greater intimacy and deeper love. As R. Yossi bar Hanina explains in Genesis Rabbah 54:3: “ Tokhehah leads to love, as it is said: ‘Rebuke a wise person and he will love you’” (Proverbs 9:8).
In the short term, it hurts us to be told we’ve done wrong, and we may respond defensively. But when we cool off, we may realize our loved one is right, and come to appreciate the risk he/she took in confronting us.
Years ago, as I was conversing with a couple before their wedding, the woman turned to me and exclaimed proudly, “We’ve never had a single fight—we never argue about anything!” She viewed the lack of argument as a strength in their relationship, but I saw the opposite—a couple so afraid of conflict, they were sweeping any threat of divisiveness under the rug.
R. Yossi bar Hanina taught: “Love unaccompanied by tokhehah is not real love” (Genesis Rabbah 54:3).
In relationships, differences are inevitable. Those couples who learn how to handle anger and talk about their differences are the most successful in building trust and intimacy.
A Limitless Responsibility?
What if, even after a cooling-down period, tokhehah does not lead to a change in the other person’s behavior? What does Jewish tradition advise us to do?
The answer in the Babylonian Talmud is clear: “If one sees his fellow engage in offensive behavior and rebukes him, but his friend does not accept it from him, from where do we learn he must go back and rebuke him again? From our verse in Leviticus 19:17, you shall surely rebuke—as many times as necessary” (Arakhin 16b).
Tokhehah may well be the only commandment whose fulfillment depends on another’s response. The Talmud says we have not fulfilled the mitzvah to confront our fellow human being until he listens and changes his behavior. Notably, while Jewish law offers a numerical limit for appeals to forgive (we are required to ask three times for someone’s forgiveness; after that the burden of obligation rests with the person who has refused to offer forgiveness), with tokhehah no such numerical limit is specified; we are obligated to speak up as often as it takes to reach the other person and help him change. Only if the other person responds to our rebuke by hitting, cursing, or scolding with anger so intense that we feel physically threatened are we relieved of our tokhehah obligation (Arakhin 16b). Otherwise, our tradition urges us to continue to give tokhehah in the hope that “maybe this time will be different.”
In a wonderful midrash (Shabbat 55a), God excuses certain people for not confronting others because “they would not have listened anyway.” The Attribute of Justice (in the Bible abstract ideas are sometimes personified) then rebukes God for assuming that any human being can, like God, know with full clarity who will and will not modify their ways. Convinced by this argument, God declares that people must always rebuke others in the hope that persuasion will prompt change. And herein lies deep wisdom about the mystery and potential of every human being. For when we decide there is no point in raising an issue with a friend or family member because “she will never hear me,” we implicitly “write the other person off.”
Rebuke vs. Choice
Most of us have grown up in a society that places individual autonomy on a pedestal. We might well wonder: does repeated tokhehah deny my loved one the right to a personal perspective or choice?
Imagine: Your father is a chain smoker and you want him to stop. You broach the subject again and again, even though he gets angry every time, telling you, “It’s my life.”
Imagine: Your friend often speeds when driving. You’re afraid he’ll have an accident, but no longer say anything to him because doing so in the past had no effect. You’re wondering whether you should bring up the subject again.
Sometimes, repeated confrontation is more important than demonstrating respect for a person’s right to make his own choices—especially when it might make a difference to his (and others’) health, well-being, and safety.
Qualified to Rebuke?
Giving tokhehah also requires that we take stock of the situation and determine whether we ourselves are best equipped to handle it. If, for example, our tokhehah involves a medical/psychological problem such as alcoholism or cutting, guiding a friend to connect with a doctor or a counselor may be the best assistance we can offer.
Several years ago, during our study of tokhehah, two of my high school students decided to confront a mutual friend (who went to another school) about their suspicions that she was cutting herself. First they talked with the girl’s parents; then they spoke to their friend about their concerns and implored her to get help. Their friend admitted she was engaging in cutting and agreed to speak to a school counselor. Tearfully, the students told our class how relieved they were, and how, but for learning about Jewish teachings on tokhehah, they might never have intervened.
Imagine:For many years, ever since a disagreement broke up the family business, your father has refused to speak to his brother. Your uncle has tried several times to connect, but your father refuses to budge. Yom Kippur is approaching, and you’d like your dad to seek reconciliation. You wonder: is it right to confront your father in light of the commandment to honor and respect your parents?
Raba, a great talmudic sage of the 4th century, argues that we must always give tokhehah, even when confronting a person to whom we owe great respect (rabbis, teachers, and, by extension, parents, employers, and political leaders). Asked, “Why does Leviticus 19:17 include the double command, ‘you shall surely rebuke’?” he explains: “This implies rebuking under all circumstances” (Baba Metzia 31a).
While the manner in which we confront a teacher, a parent, or our supervisor might differ from how we confront a friend—the nature of certain relationships requires that we take even greater care to show respect—tokhehah remains our obligation nonetheless.
The Price of Tokhehah
What if giving tokhehah might result in a personal loss, such as loss of employment? Does Judaism expect us to protest wrongdoing at considerable personal expense?
Imagine: You’re a long-term employee of a restaurant. Juan, a young Latino cook, confides in you that the boss has not paid him in weeks and that several times in the past his pay did not include earned overtime. Afraid of losing his job, he asks you to speak to the restaurant owner on his behalf. You want to help—but what if speaking up causes tension in your own relationship with your employer, and costs you your job?
In this instance, Judaism does not provide a clear-cut answer:
From Baba Metzia 31a we infer that we’re required to rebuke wrongdoing even when it is committed by an employer or supervisor; in all cases, rebuking wrong takes precedence over showing respect to someone in a higher position.
Arakhin 16b limits our tokhehah responsibility when our physical safety may be threatened.
Shabbat 54b begins with the clause, “anyone for whom it is possible to protest.…”
In deciding whether to intercede on Juan’s or another’s behalf, it’s best to evaluate the seriousness of the injustice, the degree of personal risk, and the applicability of each text. In Juan’s case, we might decide that the injustice outweighs our own potential harm—e.g., even if we were to lose our job, we wouldn’t go hungry—and therefore we are obliged to speak to the boss on Juan’s behalf. Or we might conclude that the personal risk is too great and choose instead to fulfill the obligation of tokhehah by referring Juan to an organization which advocates on behalf of immigrants or employee rights.
The mitzvah of tokhehah extends beyond family and the workplace to the larger world. The expansiveness of this obligation is qualified only by the opening phrase, “Anyone for whom it is possible to protest.” The famous commentator Rashi, who lived during the persecution of the Crusades, interpreted this to mean that an individual Jew’s obligation extended only as far as “the whole Jewish world.” The 13th-century commentator R. Menachem Ha-Meiri (“the Meiri”) taught that the greater the power of a rebuker, the greater was his obligation to rebuke: “The king is punished for the wrongdoings of the people if he does not protest [their actions], and the general populace is punished for the wrongdoings of the king, if they do not protest…. But the more powerful are punished more…with regard to anything [to which] they should pay notice but…choose [instead] to avert their eyes…” (Beit Habekhira).
As Jews today, our responsibilities would seem to expand well beyond Rashi’s definition. And yet, how can we possibly protest every wrong of which we are aware? We could spend our days doing nothing else but practicing tokhehah!
Practicality demands that we make choices, “picking our battles” and protesting the most serious injustices. While there are no easy formulas here, the writings of past commentators suggest that our choices should be guided by an assessment of potential effectiveness in bringing about positive change. Acting as part of a community, for example, can increase our effectiveness exponentially.
The Art of Tokhehah
When we decide it is important to confront someone, the big question becomes: how? Effective tokhehah puts the burden on us—we must find a way to create an opening for another person to consider our thoughts and ideas. This is the art of tokhehah.
How can we master this art? Here are ten guidelines, some articulated in our traditional sources, others inspired by them:
- Rebuke yourself first. Consider whether, unwittingly, you might share some responsibility for the other person’s action. As the famous Hassidic master the Baal Shem Tov explains, Leviticus 19:17 can be read as: “Don’t place the sin only on him.”
- Check yourself for any anger hidden in your heart and work to remove it before offering tokhehah, lest that anger spill out and poison the rebuke.
- Speak calmly and gently.
- Do not embarrass the person and thereby commit a sin in the process of giving tokhehah. Make every effort to confront him privately.
- Affirm your affection and/or respect for the person as well as your concern.
- Avoid being self-righteous in tone.
- Consider beginning with a question to open up a discussion. (This approach is particularly helpful when there is the chance that your assessment of the situation may be incorrect. If your assumption turns out to be accurate, you still have time to share your hurt and anger. But if you begin with the accusation, in the end you may find yourself back-tracking and apologizing.)
- Explain your concerns from the perspective of how you have been affected by the person’s behavior. Using “I” language rather than the accusing “you” makes it easier for the other person to listen. For example, “I feel hurt when you call at the last minute to break a date” is easier for the other person to hear than “Why do you keep breaking plans at the last minute?”
- Where relevant, acknowledge that you too have done the same thing or something similar.
- Be vigilant in monitoring your feelings during tokhehah to improve your chances of being heard. (Even when we think we’re no longer angry, when we confront someone the anger may bubble up again and our words may slip into accusation. It takes real work to control how we express our rebuke.)
It is difficult for most well-intentioned individuals to recognize their own limitations which may have contributed to the problem prompting the rebuke. Thus the Baal Shem Tov urges us to look inward before rebuking our fellow to see whether, unwittingly, we might share some responsibility for his sin. Lev. 19:17, he explains, can be read as: “Don’t place the sin only on him.”
Imagine: Troubled by what you see as your spouse’s increasing detachment (he always seems to have work or a TV program to watch that doesn’t interest you), you finally explode: “Why is it you never want to do anything together anymore? You watch TV and work late without even thinking about me and what I want to do!” “I have a career too!” he responds angrily, “and I have work I have to get done!” You end up having a fight.
How might this fight have been avoided? Imagine if this conversation had begun: “Honey, lately it seems like whenever I want to spend time together, there’s something else you need to do. Is this just bad timing on my part, or is there more to it? Is everything okay?”
The earlier exchange actually took place. And in talking it through later, S., the wife, learned that her husband was feeling resentful of her incessant chatting about her work without giving him a chance to talk about his. But instead of telling S. how he felt, he began to pull back from her. He didn’t realize he was withdrawing, and she didn’t realize how she was contributing to his withdrawal.
Another danger addressed by the ten guidelines is monitoring our self-righteous tendencies before and while we engage in rebuke.
Imagine: You are in the grocery store and a woman down the aisle is yelling at her young child. The child is crying and cowers as her mother raises her hand to slap her. You’re furious—how dare this woman hurt an innocent child!—and tempted to tell her off.
When we’re about to give tokhehah it’s important to be mindful of its purpose—to bring about a positive change in the actions of the offending person. Voicing an accusation against a stranger is unlikely to produce the desired results. Imagine, instead, a compassionate response: “Can I hold your child while you get what you need?” Rather than pronouncing judgment or looking away in discomfort (and thereby not engaging in tokhehah), an empathetic offer to help conveys: “I’ve been there, too.”
Receiving rebuke well is also an acquired art. When we are given this (yes) opportunity, we can ask ourselves:
Can I hold my naturally defensive reactions in check, knowing that if I do, I may learn something important?
Can I see myself from another person’s perspective, and potentially deepen our relationship in the process?
Keeping in mind how hard it is to give sensitive tokhehah may also help us to appreciate others’ efforts when we find ourselves at the receiving end.
* * *
The rabbis of the Talmud reflect on how rare it is to find a person who has truly mastered the art of giving and receiving rebuke. Like most arts, tokhehah requires time, effort, and patience to perfect. This High Holy Day season, let’s take the opportunity to experiment with this mitzvah, lovingly holding up the mirror of truth to ourselves and then to each other.