I am sure that most of you have heard of the Biblical commandment to “Love your Neighbor” (see Leviticus 19:18). But how many of you have heard of the Biblical commandment to “Correct your Neighbor”?!
That’s right … you read that correctly. One of the 13 positive commandments mentioned in this week’s Torah portion is the mitzvah to correct your fellow Jew when he/she commits a sin. As the Torah instructs us: “You must correct your neighbor…” (Leviticus 19:17). With these words, the Torah gives every Jew the moral obligation to correct any other Jew who is doing wrong.
Of course, as with all the commandments, there are specific parameters to this obligation.
In expressing this commandment, the Torah says, “You must correct your neighbor, and do not bear a sin because of him”. The Talmud in Arachin 16b explains this to mean that one should not correct another Jew in such a manner that will in any way embarrass him, since embarrassing another person is considered a most serious sin.
From here we learn that when we correct others we must do so with the utmost tact and thoughtfulness. The best way to fulfill this commandment and correct another person is not with harsh words of rebuke – or by embarrassing him – but by drawing him close to G-d with love and affection.
[The holy Tzaddik (righteous person) Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev writes in Kedushas Levi (on Parshas Chukas) that one should correct his fellow Jew with pleasant words. He should tell him how important he is and how lofty is his soul, and how much pleasure G-d has from the mitzvos kept by each individual Jew, and of the great joy that exists in the upper worlds when even a single Jew observes G-d’s commandments.]
Additionally, our Sages teach us that one is required to correct a wrongdoer only so long as there is any chance that it might have a positive effect. However, if he shows signs of anger, becomes insulting, scornful, or simply refuses to listen, one must stop (see Talmud Arachin ibid.).
As the Talmud in Yevamos 65b quotes in the name of Rabbi Ila’a: “Just like it is a mitzvah to say something that will be accepted, so is it a mitzvah not to say something that will not be accepted.”
So we see that correcting one’s neighbor is not always obligatory, or even feasible, as it depends on the type of person one is trying to correct.
King Solomon, the wisest of all men, wrote in Proverbs 9:8: “Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; correct a wise man, and he will love you”.
The commentators explain as follows: Unlike a scoffer who thinks he is always right and has no need to improve himself, the wise man is always looking to refine his character traits and become a better person. So that when someone points out to the wise man his spiritual flaws and imperfections, he doesn’t ‘hate’ him like the scoffer does. Rather, the one who corrects the wise man becomes beloved in his eyes because he is helping him become the best person he can be.
As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in his commentary to Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) 6:6: “Since moral and ethical perfection is the ultimate goal of a Torah scholar, he will never be angry with someone who points out his errors and faults. Such a person is a friend, not an enemy, and one should thank him with all his heart and regard him as a benefactor.”
Now I know that many of you reading this are probably thinking that this is just some pie-in-the-sky delusion, and that there is nobody on this planet who would actually ‘love’ to be corrected by others of his flaws and erroneous ways.
And you might just be right. After all, we are living in a “live and let live” generation where anything goes, and who are you to butt in to my business and tell me what’s wrong with me…. I don’t need your ‘corrections’, thank you very much!
But that’s not the way things were for the Jewish people over a hundred years ago, going back centuries and millennia. You see, then we had a uniquely Jewish institution known as the Maggid (plural Maggidim), an itinerant preacher who used to travel around to all the big cities and the small villages where Jews could be found, speaking to the masses and exhorting them to change.
Of course, the Maggid didn’t just rebuke the people outright in his attempt to correct their ways. He would first meet with the local rabbi to find out in which areas the people needed improvement. Then he would gather the entire community together one evening in the synagogue and he would beautifully spin together stirring stories, poignant parables and relevant Torah insights, throwing in here and there important lessons about specific flaws that needed to be corrected - and the people just ate it up!
I guess back then the Jewish people were a bit wiser than we are today and they actually embraced attempts made by well-meaning preachers to correct their ways. Or maybe the problem is that we don’t have the same caliber of Maggidim today that we once had. Who knows?
I would like to conclude with a story about a famous Tzaddik and very wise and humble man who truly appreciated any attempts to correct him:
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), otherwise known as the Ba’al HaTanya, once called in the local Maggid in his town and asked him for some rebuke, in order to help him correct his ways. The Maggid was taken aback by the request. After all, who was he, the lowly Maggid, to give reproach to this great Torah scholar and spiritual leader of his people?! On the other hand, who was he to refuse the great man’s request?!
The Maggid thought for a moment and then he told Rabbi Schneur Zalman the following ‘rebuke’: “What can I say in front of such a great person as yourself? After all, whatever little Torah knowledge I have attained, you surely have as well. And whatever Torah knowledge you have not yet attained, I certainly have not attained either. So what then is the real difference between me, the lowly Maggid, and you, the great Torah scholar? It is that Torah knowledge which I have not yet attained but you have already attained. Even so, the difference between that which I have not yet attained but you have already attained is far less than the difference between what you have already attained and that which you have not yet attained.” When Rabbi Schneur Zalman heard this humbling ‘rebuke’ from the Maggid, he burst into tears.