“Do not stand idly by…Do not hate your brother…Rebuke your neighbor and incur no guilt. Don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge…love your neighbor as yourself.” – Leviticus 19:16-18
At the heart of Leviticus sit words of wisdom and yet contradiction. How do we avoid standing idly by as our neighbor bleeds without bearing a grudge toward the person who hurts him? How can we rebuke our neighbor while simultaneously loving him deeply and profoundly?
A congregant recently came up to me, frustrated and angered by the state of our world. “Rabbi, it seems so clear to me,” she said. “We need to do more for the poor. We need to enact better gun control laws. But so many people just don’t get it. Why don’t they get it?”
It was a sentiment I had heard many times before. It was a sentiment I felt many times before. If we were all prophets, raising our voices in rebuke, could we, like Jonah, change a society with the power of words? Is this what is meant by the now magical phrase “Abracadabra—I will create as I speak”?
הוכח תוכיח. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor.
The word rebuke encompasses a world of meanings. It can mean to scold, shame or berate, to clue someone into a truth that we know but the other has not yet accepted.
The problem with this understanding of rebuke is that it is entirely one sided. It presumes a world of black and white, where one savoir intervenes against an adversary for the sake of humanity. But perhaps in this world filled with gray, rebuke has another meaning entirely.
In Genesis 21, Abraham and Abimelech are forging an agreement, when Abraham decides to offer a word of rebuke. He complains about a well which Abimelech’s servants had seized a long time ago. Abimelech responds, saying that he has no idea who took away the well, and why did Abraham wait to tell him about this incident?
This time rebuke was conversational. Abraham realizes that an agreement between the two leaders could only be made from a place of openness and understanding. Abraham voices his concern not to scold Abimelech, but to allow Abimelech to respond. Abraham is forced to accept the rebuke of Abimelech in return: next time don’t hold onto your grievances. Speak about them immediately. As a text from Qumran instructs, this kind of rebuke means “to reproach each other in truth, and humility, and in loving consideration” (The Community Rule 5).
This second concept of rebuke acknowledges that often there is no savior and no adversary. Instead, there are people, aspiring to great heights in spite of, or maybe because of our imperfections. Although our methods and beliefs may be different, ultimately we all want a just world in which our children can grow up safely. We raise our voices not in anger, but in gentle love, as we strive to help one another achieve our collective goals. It is a rebuke couched in relationship and understanding.
Just one verse after Abraham’s rebuke of Abimelech, and Abimelech’s honest reply, the two men form a lasting covenant. If Abraham’s rebuke had been filled with anger, could such a covenant come into being? And if Abraham hadn’t voiced rebuke in the midst of their negotiations, could their covenant have stood the test of time?
Abraham and Abimelech teach us that without love no rebuke is possible, and without rebuke relationships are superficial and short lived. They teach that it’s time to welcome a little rebuke into our love, and a little love into our rebuke.