Parshas Devarim consists largely of Moshe Rabbeinu’s tochacha to the Jewish people. The Parsha begins with Moshe mentioning a number of place names that do not appear anywhere else in the Torah. Chazal tell us that these names were in fact allusions to places where the Jews had sinned; Moshe did not explicitly state that the Jews had sinned here, rather he chose to hint to their transgressions. Rashi explains that he did so “because of the honor of Israel” - even though the Jewish people needed to be rebuked, to explicitly mention their sins would have been too much of a pgam on their kavod. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l derives a vital lesson about tochacha from Rashi’s explanation he writes, “we learn from here how incumbent it is upon the rebuker to worry about and be fearful for, the honor of the person being rebuked.”
This teaches us that the key factor that determines whether a rebuke will have a positive or negative effect is one’s motivation for rebuking. Moshe maintained his love and concern for the Jewish people in the midst of speaking to them very harshly. Indeed, it seems clear that this love was the very reason that he was rebuking them - it was purely an act of kindness. In doing so he was able to maintain a sensitivity to their honor whilst simultaneously criticizing them. The Gemara tells us that it is exceedingly difficult to rebuke someone in an effective way. Nonetheless, this does not mean that we are exempt from the mitzvo, and there are times when one can do a great kindness by clarifying the correct hanhago to someone who is likely to listen. We learn from Moshe that the rebuker must care about the other person, and empathize with him, trying to understand where he is coming from and how is the best way to influence him for the good. Conversely, rebuke can be extremely damaging when it emanates from anger and a lack of concern for the spiritual well being of the other person. In such instances the rebuker will make no effort to try to understand why the other person is acting in such a way and may therefore have unreasonable expectations of him.
The following story, told over by Rav Dovid Kaplan Shlita, demonstrates this point: “Raised modern Orthodox, Devoras’s parents instilled in her a respect for rabbis but a critical eye toward chareidim. When she got older, she decided to check it out for herself and davened at the Ponevezh Yeshiva during the Yamim Nora’im. She went back for Simchas Torah. Everything was fine until one of the girls present said to her in a loud voice in front of a crowd of girls, “you don’t come to daven here without wearing stockings!” Devora stormed out. If this was how chareidim behaved she was not interested. However, due to her respect for rabbis, she decided to go speak to Rav Shach zt“l. When she arrived at his door, there was a long line of men waiting to go in. When the door opened and the person inside left, they called here in, explaining that women had higher priority. Pleasantly surprised, she related the shocking story to the gadol hador. “They did a big aveirah.” Rav Shach told her. “Maybe it was unintentional, but they are still obligated to ask your forgiveness.” He spoke to her for a long time about how careful we must be to be sensitive to others. She decided during this talk to become more religious. Today she is married to a Rosh Yeshiva and her sons and son-in-laws are talmidei chachamim.”
This story teaches us how much damage one wrong statement can do and how much good can be achieved with caring words. How did the girl who spoke harshly to Devora come to commit such a serious sin when she surely meant to defend shemiras hamitzvos? The answer is that she made no effort to understand Devora’s background and level. Consequently, her rebuke did not only fail to change Devora for the good but it very nearly alienated this girl from chareidi Jewry and prevented her from becoming more observant.
In contrast, tochacha that is motivated out of concern for one’s fellow will lead us to measure our words carefully before correcting someone else’s behavior. Rav Yehonasan Eibeschitz zt”l says that the greatest way of fulfilling the mitzvo of ‘love thy neighbor’ is by caring about the spiritual well being of one‘s fellow Jew - this attitude manifests itself in the right form of tochacha. This lesson is very pertinent to Tisha B’Av; Chazal tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinas chinam (baseless hatred). Rav Eibetschitz continues that the sinas chinam was the fact that the people refrained from rebuking each other. As a consequence, the numerous groups of apikorsim were allowed to grow and adversely influence the Jewish people. According to this explanation, hatred is not limited to active adversity, it also includes apathy. Such apathy indicated a severe lacking in the bein adam lechaveiro of the people at the time of the Second Beis HaMedrash.
Chazal tell us that any generation in which the Beis HaMikdash is not rebuilt, is considered as if they destroyed it. This means that the present generation is still effected by sinas chinam, defined by Rav Eibetschitz as not caring enough about one’s fellow to want to help him improve his Avodas Hashem. Whilst we have seen that rebuke can be very damaging when done in the wrong way, nonetheless, if it emanates from a true feeling of ahava then it can surely be used to greatly help our fellow Jew.