One of the most famous teachings in Pirkei Avot is Hillel’s admonition (1:12) to “be of the students of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace.” Sometimes we remember that’s not the end of the statement, and include “loving people” in our quotation – but I’m not sure how often we remember the end, “and bringing them close to Torah.”
The idea of loving and pursuing peace resonates with a lot of people, as does love for our fellow human beings. But what is this “bringing them close to Torah” of which Hillel speaks?
Midrashic traditions describe how Aharon used a loving approach to motivate others to repent their sinful ways. As Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura describes, “when he knew about a person that he had committed a transgression,” he would make a point of befriending the individual. “That person would be embarrassed and say, ‘If this righteous man knew my misdeeds, how he would distance himself from me!’ – and out of that, he would return to good.”
Discussing this mishna with a group of adult learners recently, I expected reactions to this account to be overwhelmingly positive. Today’s mantra is “you do you”; judginess is the ultimate sin. In that societal context, I thought Aharon’s hands-off method, simply exuding love for his fellow creations, letting nature take its course and others make their own decisions, would be welcome.
One woman, however, was deeply disturbed by the idea of a religious leader appearing to accept those who don’t follow Torah law. If he’s too friendly and doesn’t point out the problem with the person’s behavior, she argued, the person – as well as others – might think he doesn’t object!
The Tosfot Yom Tov has a similar objection, pointing out that “befriending” a sinner violates an earlier teaching in Avot: “Nitai the Arbeli says… don’t befriend a rasha” (ibid. 7) – and indeed, some commentaries explain that statement as reflecting a concern that one who befriends a rasha might give the impression of supporting the rasha’s deeds.
Instead, Tosfot Yom Tov cites a subtly different version of Aharon’s approach: It’s not that he went out of his way to befriend sinners, but “when Aharon was walking on the road and met a rasha, he would greet him.” Simple civility, rather than overt friendship, was enough to inspire the person to improve his future behavior – though as we ended class, my friend-student didn’t seem satisfied. Was that subtle distinction enough to fulfill Aharon’s responsibility to represent and convey Torah standards?
Interpersonal relationships, especially questions of whether and how much and in what manner to get involved in others’ religious lives, are all about subtle distinctions – and it can seem impossible to get it “right” in everyone’s eyes.
Just a day after that class, a friend shared that she had been approached by a man she didn’t know, out in public with her kids, who offered an unsolicited opinion about the halachic validity of something they were doing. Reactions to her story, at least as far as I observed, were fairly unanimous that he shouldn’t have said anything. Though they differed in degree and tone, the overwhelming perspective in that conversation was you do you; it’s not his business to judge you.
The range of perspectives in these two discussions highlighted the incredible challenge of the mitzvah of tochachah, rebuke – conveniently located in parshat Kedoshim: “Don’t hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your fellow, and do not bear sin upon him” (Vayikra 19:17).
Scholars have struggled to work through this pasuk (and its context) for centuries, and it’s not simple. We’re told we must stick our noses into others’ business – as my wise “student” pointed out, we must actively and clearly stand up for our values – but when and how and why?
Is the pasuk talking about rebuking someone over something they did to you, to talk it out and make peace (e.g. Rashbam), or does it apply anytime you know of a[n apparent] sin, even one relevant only to the individual’s personal relationship with G-d? Are we supposed to stick our noses in specifically when it involves us, or even when it doesn’t? If the latter, is it so we can clear things up and not suspect them further (which still makes it sort of my business, avoiding the crime of unfounded suspicion) or purely to prevent them from doing something wrong (which doesn’t look like my business…but maybe that’s the point)?
It occurred to me, considering the range of viewpoints expressed in those two discussions, that part of the challenge is the simple fact that that we all see things differently. One person is highly invested in “loving people,” and another feels a strong sense of responsibility to “bring them close to Torah,” and everyone has different ideas about the proper balance between the two.
How are we supposed to fulfill mitzvos in the realm of interpersonal relationships when each person reacts differently?
As my kids used to argue, in the context of explaining that “love your friend like yourself” means not doing to another person what you don’t like, sometimes we like different things. “What if I like when people hum incessantly?” for instance.
Chazal found guidelines for these complications in the pesukim; for instance, “do not bear sin upon him” is a warning not to give rebuke in a manner that will embarrass the person (Arachin 16b). But some think any rebuke is inherently judgy and embarrassing and not to be tolerated; how do we manage then?
Maybe the first step is to recognize that simple fact, that people are different and see things differently and respond differently.
And to remember that that simple fact is important from both sides: We have a responsibility to be careful when offering rebuke (which often means not offering rebuke), and we also have a responsibility to be careful when reacting to rebuke.
The connection between “don’t hate your brother in your heart” and “you shall surely rebuke your fellow” is often explained in a linear manner: If someone does something to you, don’t sit on it and bottle it up and hold onto the hatred; instead, “rebuke” – in a broad sense, meaning bring it up and discuss it and work things through.
It occurred to me though, and I was gratified to find that Ohr Hachaim seems to say, that perhaps the connection can be understood in the other direction as well: Before commanding us to offer rebuke, Hashem prepares the path for such rebuke by reminding us not to hate each other – because if one is worried about being hated for speaking up, how can he or she ever find the courage to do so? Don’t hate your brother – even one who rebukes you. Just as we hope the rebuker will think carefully before choosing whether to speak up or not, and perhaps choose to assume the best and keep silent, the rebukee can also choose to assume the best intentions of the rebuker.
Mutual responsibility, after all, goes in both directions – as do other appealing principles such as judging favorably.
Sefirat Ha’Omer, when we mourn the loss of Rabbi Akiva’s students, and the Three Weeks – both are excellent times to reflect on the terrible danger of sinat chinam, hatred for nothing. We do have a tremendous responsibility to be careful about how we look at other people, to use extreme caution in deciding what to say (if anything) and when and how. At the same time, though, let’s not forget that not everything we don’t like is hatred. We might just have different views on different expressions of love.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.