We are commanded in this week’s Torah reading, Kedoshim tihiyu. “You shall be holy!” Vayikra/Leviticus 19:1. What exactly does that mean? On some level we are each holy without any effort whatsoever. God created us as holy. We are supposed treat each other with respect based on the mere fact of inherent holiness—that divine spark, that bit of God within each of us.
Perhaps that is too much to expect. So the Torah goes out of its way to tell us, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” But what if you see her doing something she should know is wrong? You have no right to hate. Rather, we are instructed to “… admonish her….” That may be easier said than done and giving criticism can be fraught with danger. Danger? Not done correctly, giving criticism in the wrong way can cause humiliation, embarrassment and pain. Besides, how do you know that what you have seen was what you thought you saw or that what you witnessed was unjustified?
Therefore, Chapter 19 goes on to state, “…and you shall not bear a sin because of him.” The prohibition against “bearing a sin” when we see the sin of another has a twofold meaning. We are not to be silent or apathetic and ignore wrongdoing and thus have that sin become our own. Similarly, we are to make sure that though we do give criticism, we do it appropriately, privately, respectfully and give the benefit of the doubt that perhaps we are wrong. We give reproof or admonition in humility, hope and respect. If we give criticism in the wrong way and cause embarrassment or antagonize an individual, we may also bear sin and do more harm than good.
The sages teach many ways to give reproof. They talk about the importance of the empathy, compassion and listening. They talk about the importance of building bridges of trust and understanding. The very next Torah sentence is the directive to “love your neighbor as yourself.” 19:18. Only admonish the way you wish to be admonished. Give the same benefit of the doubt that you would desire. They say that we judge others by their actions, while we judge ourselves by our intentions. Try reversing that. Perhaps the best reproof is to be your own role model and example of the behavior you wish to encourage.
This Shabbat we learn with Rabbi Rachel Shere. 10:00 a.m. in the Youth Lounge. Come as you are. Stay as long as you like. There is no judging. There is no reproof. There is no criticism. There is just the love of learning and exploration of the greatness of our Torah, teachings and traditions in the modern context of our lives.