We all know that the Torah instructs us to offer appropriate correction when we witness a fellow Jew behaving in a way contrary to the teachings of the Torah, as it is written (Vayikra 19:17): לֹא־תִשְׂנָא אֶת־אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא (You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall repeatedly rebuke your fellow Jew, and you shall not bear sin on account of him). In other words, if we don’t rebuke or correct our brother, then in some way we are showing our hatred (or perhaps contempt) for him, and further, we end up sharing in his guilt. Therefore, on the surface, these words should motivate all of us to rebuke each other whenever we’re given the opportunity. After all, who wants to be accused by Heaven of hating his brother and end up sharing in his guilt?
However, there’s a little hitch. It is taught in the Gemara (Arachin 16b): א”ר טרפון (תמיהני) אני אם יש בדור הזה שמקבל תוכחה אם אמר לו טול קיסם מבין עיניך אמר לו טול קורה מבין עיניך אמר רבי אלעזר בן עזריה תמיהני אם יש בדור הזה שיודע להוכיח (R’ Tarfon said, I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who can receive rebuke. If he would say to him, ‘Remove the splinter from between your eyes’, he would respond to him, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.’ R’ Elazar ben Azariah said, I would be surprised if there was anyone in this generation who knew how to offer rebuke). Now, if these great sages expressed these words about their generation, how much more would it be said of our generation?
If (potentially) no one is really capable of giving rebuke anymore and no one is really capable of receiving rebuke anymore (rather than justifying himself while accusing the rebuker), then why do we correct each other so often? The answer is simple: it feels good. And when something ‘feels good’ while not being in line with the Torah, we may safely assert that the behavior is actually being instigated by the Yetzer ha-Ra and, therefore, we need to resist the urge. Why does it feel so good? Many reasons could be given, but perhaps the main reason why we have such a craving to correct others is that we have feelings of low self-worth. By correcting others, we artificially elevate ourselves at the expense of the others thus allowing ourselves to feel good about ourselves when we haven’t done anything to merit true feelings of self-worth. Another way to put it is that it stems from a lack of self-judgment. Everybody has an inherent, internal drive to correct and to rebuke. It’s built into the human psyche, and it’s a good thing—potentially. The goal is to use this drive in the right way. It needs to be used as a tool for exercising the attribute of gevurah d’kedushah and not as a tool for the attribute of chesed of the Sitra Achra.
What happens at the spiritual level when someone is rebuked improperly? R’ Nachman describes the chain of events (Likutei Moharan II:8): כִּי כְּשֶׁהַמּוֹכִיחַ אֵינוֹ רָאוּי לְהוֹכִיחַ אֲזַי לֹא דַּי שֶׁאֵינוֹ מוֹעִיל בְּתוֹכַחְתּוֹ אַף גַּם הוּא מַבְאִישׁ רֵיחַ שֶׁל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת הַשּׁוֹמְעִים תּוֹכַחְתּוֹ כִּי עַל־יְדֵי תּוֹכַחְתּוֹ הוּא מְעוֹרֵר הָרֵיחַ רַע שֶׁל הַמַּעֲשִׂים רָעִים וּמִדּוֹת רָעוֹת שֶׁל הָאֲנָשִׁים שֶׁהוּא מוֹכִיחָם (When the rebuker isn’t fit to rebuke, not only does his rebuke not help, but he causes a stink to arise from the souls of the people hearing his rebuke, for through his rebuke he stirs up the bad smell of the bad deeds and the bad middot of the people that he is rebuking). It’s like taking a stick and poking around in a pile of garbage. If the garbage had been left alone, the bad odor may not even have been detected, but now that the person poked around in it, he stirred up the stench and made matters much worse.
But it’s worse than that. The soul of the rebukee is actually weakened in the process, which restricts or diminishes the flow of heavenly abundance to all the worlds that are dependent on that soul. This happens because a soul’s primary nourishment is from scent, as it is written (Tehillim 150:6): כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל קָהּ (The entire soul should praise G d). And the Gemara in Berachot 43b expounds the implication of the verse: אֵיזֶהוּ דָּבָר שֶׁהַנְּשָׁמָה נֶהֱנֵית מִמֶּנּוּ וְאֵין הַגּוּף נֶהֱנֶה מִמֶּנּוּ…זֶה הָרֵיחַ (What is something from which the soul derives benefit but the body does not derive benefit? It is the fragrance). So we see that the health of the soul is very much dependent on scent, on aroma. Therefore, when someone who isn’t fit to rebuke stirs up the bad odor of his fellow, he is literally weakening the essence of that person. He is weakening his brother’s soul and causing it to become ill. Sadly, when ill-rebuke becomes habitual, the souls of all of us (our families and communities) become ill and a terrible stench filters heavenward triggering decrees of judgment against us.
However, when healthy rebuke takes place, a pleasant fragrance gets injected into the soul of the errant one which acts as a healing balm. Therefore, when this form of rebuke spreads throughout the nation, a pleasant scent wafts heavenward which leads to the sweetening of harsh decrees and to blessings. But in light of R’ Tarfon’s and R’ Elazar ben Azariah’s words, do such people even exist anymore, people who are capable of rebuking properly? The answer is yes, but such people need to be in the aspect of Moshe Rabbeinu, the leader of the Jewish Nation, who was truly capable of giving rebuke in such a way as to enhance the scent of the souls of those whom he corrected. We learn this from a careful reading of the wording of Shir ha-Shirim 1:12 which our Sages say refers to the sin of the Golden Calf: עַד־שֶׁהַמֶּלֶךְ בִּמְסִבּוֹ נִרְדִּי נָתַן רֵיחוֹ (While the king was reclining [at his festive meal, i.e. at the Giving of the Torah at Sinai], my nard gave forth [natan] its fragrance). We would have expected the verse to say that the fragrance of the Jewish Nation putrified, but it doesn’t say that. Oddly, it says that its fragrance gave forth. As Rashi writes: אָכֵן לְפֵרוּשׁ הַתּוֹסָפוֹת שָׁם שֶׁפֵּרַשׁ וְהָכִי קָאָמַר מַה שֶּׁכָּתַב נָתַן וְלֹא עָזַב זֶהוּ מִשּׁוּם חִבָּה (Likewise, according to Tosafot there [see Shabbat 88b where the verse is discussed], the reason that natan [gave] is written and not azav [forsook, abandoned] is because of affection). As R’ Nachman elucidates with tremendous clarity (L.M. II:8): כִּי עַל־יְדֵי תּוֹכָחָה שֶׁל מֹשֶׁה עַל מַעֲשֵׂה הָעֵגֶל הוֹסִיף וְנָתַן בָּהֶם רֵיחַ טוֹב שֶׁהוּא בְּחִינַת מְזוֹנָא דְּנִשְׁמָתָא כִּי עִקָּר יְנִיקַת הַנְּשָׁמָה הִיא מֵהָרֵיחַ כַּנַּ”ל כִּי עַל־יְדֵי קוֹל הַמּוֹכִיחַ שֶׁהוּא רָאוּי עַל־יְדֵי־זֶה הוּא נוֹתֵן רֵיחַ טוֹב בְּהַנְּשָׁמוֹת שֶׁהוּא בְּחִינַת מְזוֹנָא דְּנִשְׁמָתָא (Through Moshe’s rebuke regarding the incident of the calf, he added and put [natan] into them a good fragrance that is like ‘sustenance of the soul’ because the soul mainly draws its nourishment from the scent because through the voice of the one who is fit to rebuke he puts a good aroma into the souls, which is like ‘sustenance of the soul’). In other words, Moshe’s words of correction were filled with so much love and affection that he did not stir up a bad odor in the Jewish People, G d forbid. Rather, through his rebuke, he strengthened them and caused them to emit a pleasant fragrance.
When did Moshe deliver this rebuke? Practically forty years later, at the end of his life, and only then in highly coded language (Devarim 1:1): אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־כׇּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּין־פָּארָן וּבֵין־תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת וְדִי זָהָב (These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Yisrael across the Yarden, in the desert, in the Aravah, near Suf, between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan, and Chatzerot, and Di-Zahav). As Rashi explains: לְפִי שֶׁהֵן דִּבְרֵי תוֹכָחוֹת וּמָנָה כָאן כָּל הַמְּקוֹמוֹת שֶׁהִכְעִיסוּ לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם בָּהֶן לְפִיכָךְ סָתַם אֶת הַדְּבָרִים וְהִזְכִּירָם בְּרֶמֶז מִפְּנֵי כְבוֹדָן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל (Because they are words of rebuke, and he enumerated all of the places where they angered the Omniscient One; therefore, he ‘closed the words’ and mentioned them only by allusion because of the honor of Yisrael).
Where is the allusion to the sin of the Golden Calf in this verse? It is in the words ‘Di-Zahav’. That’s it. That is the extent of Moshe rebuke in this matter! And even though he rebuked them about it (if you could even call that a rebuke), he did so only after he had spent many days (years prior to this) defending and justifying the nation in the presence of Hashem, essentially blaming Hashem (at least partially) for the sin (Berachot 32a): מַאי וְדִי זָהָב אָמְרִי דְּבֵי רַבִּי יַנַּאי כָּךְ אָמַר מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם בִּשְׁבִיל כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב שֶׁהִשְׁפַּעְתָּ לָהֶם לְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַד שֶׁאָמְרוּ דַּי הוּא גָּרַם שֶׁעָשׂוּ אֶת הָעֵגֶל (What is the meaning of ‘and Di-Zahav’? Those in the yeshiva of R’ Yannai said, This is what Moshe said before the Holy One, blessed be He, Master of the World, because of the silver and the gold [zahav] that You lavished upon Yisrael, until they said ‘Enough [Dai]!’, that is what caused them to make the calf). And that’s how to correct someone.
Our Sages taught (Tamid 28a): כל המוכיח את חבירו לשם שמים זוכה לחלקו של הקדוש ברוך הוא שנאמר מוכיח אדם אחרי ולא עוד אלא שמושכין עליו חוט של חסד שנאמר חן ימצא ממחליק לשון (Anyone who rebukes his friend for the sake of Heaven merits to a portion of the Holy One, blessed be He, as it says [Mishlei 28:23]: He that rebukes a man shall be behind Me… Moreover, they draw down upon him a thread of kindness [chut shel chesed], as it says: …He will find more grace than the one who flatters with his tongue). This is how one fulfills the mitzvah to rebuke a fellow Jew. Anything less just makes matters worse.
But what if we haven’t yet completely nullified our craving to correct others? After the fact, if we did rebuke someone (even if we think we were 100% right in doing so), we just need to ask ourselves a simple question to help us figure out if we were behaving for the sake of Heaven and acting in the spirit of Moshe Rabbeinu (or not): Does the person I corrected view me more favorably after I rebuked him than he did before I corrected him? If the answer is not an unequivocal ‘Yes’, then perhaps we need to spend more time in self-judgment.
This is also how Mashiach will deal with the Jewish Nation, as it is written (Yeshayah 11:3): וַהֲרִיחוֹ בְּיִרְאַת יְיָ וְלֹא־לְמַרְאֵה עֵינָיו יִשְׁפּוֹט וְלֹא־לְמִשְׁמַע אׇזְנָיו יוֹכִיחַ (And he will be imbued [haricho] with the fear [yirah] of Hashem; he will not judge by what his eyes see nor rebuke by what his ears hear). The Gemara discusses the meaning of the word haricho (Sanhedrin 93b): אמר רבי אלכסנדרי מלמד שהטעינו מצות ויסורין כריחיים רבא אמר דמורח ודאין (R’ Alexandri said it teaches that He loaded Mashiach with commandments [mitzvot] and suffering [yissurin] like millstones [reichaim]; Rava said that [Mashiach] smells [morach] and judges). What did Rava mean by saying that Mashiach smells and judges? It is as we have explained throughout. Mashiach will be able to ‘smell’ the soul of every Jew to discern whether it is emitting a pleasant fragrance, i.e. whether it is healthy and being nourished properly, or a stench (G-d forbid), meaning that it is ill and malnourished. And this is why Rava connects smelling to judging. The point of smelling is to judge or ‘discern’ the state of each soul. Why is this needed? Healing cannot begin until all sickness is properly diagnosed.
May we merit the revelation of Mashiach speedily in our days to be truly healed within and without with aרְפוּאַת הַנֶּפֶשׁ וּרְפוּאַת הַגּוּף (healing of the soul and a healing of the body).