I confess. It has only been two weeks since Yom Kippur and, oops, I did it again. I sinned. And I feel bad. It happened here in Calabasas around the corner from A.C. Stelle Middle School on Friday, October 5th, at about 3:15 pm.
I was making my way home when I turned off the main road. I immediately found myself negotiating my way through a narrow passage between SUVs lining both sides of the street as they waited to pick up carpools. I watched the steady stream of cars driving down one street veering left and right to avoid the children crossing mid-street.
There in the street stood a woman, leaning toward the window of a big SUV, having a conversation. After observing a few cars swerve around her, I came to believe that she was endangering herself and others by standing in the road. I opened my window and called out, “Could you move to the other side of the car? By standing there you are making it unsafe for our kids.” She and the woman in the driver’s seat of the SUV looked strangely at me and said, “What?” I repeated my concern, “Standing in the street, you are making it unsafe for our kids and yourself. The cars are swerving…” She looked at me again, pondered what I said, and called out, “Shut Up!”
With cars now lining up behind me, I continued forward. I was irritated. My first impulse was to pull off to the side, park and walk back to talk to her. What kind of a response was “Shut Up!”? I wanted to rebuke her for her crassness. Our Torah teaches us (Leviticus 19:18), “Tochecha – You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of her.” I only wanted to protect the kids and to ensure that we were all safe. I wanted to protect her too. I didn’t want anyone to be killed by a swerving car.
“Shut Up!” She Called Out
Was that civil conversation? Is this the kind of response one would want their kids overhearing?
The impulse to shake it off won out over the impulse to talk it through. I had two boys at home, waiting (im)patiently for dad to arrive home for a game of catch. Nothing good could come out of a conversation between a do-gooder (as I thought I was) and a woman who responded with “Shut Up”. It is just as the Talmud explains: Rabbi Tarfon said, I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to accept reproof, for if one says to another: Remove the chip of wood from between your eyes, he would answer: [No, you] remove the beam from between your eyes! (Arakhin 16b) So off I drove, home to my kids.
My Heart Wasn’t Fully into Playing Catch
I kept returning to the concluding line of the Talmud passage, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to give reproof. Had I been inappropriate with my comments? Regardless of intent, had I somehow transgressed the bounds of appropriate critique? After all, didn’t Rashi, the 11th century commentator, warn us, Though rebuking him, you should not publicly embarrass him, in which case you will bear sin on account of him. Had I embarrassed her by calling out my critique in front of her conversation partner and the other people – kids included – who were standing around on the sidewalk? I was so lost in thought that I missed a few perfectly thrown balls. When one throw narrowly missed bonking me in the noggin, I realized that I had to get my head back in the game.
But I stewed. Why had she reacted so strongly? I remembered a line from 12th century Maimonides, One who rebukes another, whether for [personal] offenses or for sins against God, should administer the rebuke in private, speak to the offender gently and tenderly and point out that he is only speaking for the wrongdoer’s own good… (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 6:7). Was there enough gentleness or tenderness in my voice? Or had I been frustrated by this continual back-up on the road home? Did I smile as I shared my concerns or did I have a scowl on my face? Did I say “please”? I was beginning to believe that in my attempt to help others I had somehow harmed this anonymous woman.
My friend Rabbi Alan Henkin reminds us regularly of the Talmudic caution (Yevamot 65b), Rabbi Ilea said in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Shimon: Just as one is commanded to say that which will be heard, so one is commanded not to say that which will not be heard. As it is written, “Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8). Was this woman just a “scoffer”, one who expresses disdain about everything? I really didn’t know anything about her. Perhaps her child was struggling in school and she was asking advice about how to handle the situation. Perhaps she spent a horrible morning in the hospital, caring for a family member, and now, emotionally exhausted from trying to “hold it together,” she inadvertently lashed out. Was her marriage in trouble and just at that moment, she was sharing her fears for the first time with a friend? I know that if I were in emotional turmoil, I would not react kindly to any kind of rebuke. Especially from someone shouting drive-by criticism.
With this new perspective, I started feeling a little guilty for being so public about my rebuke, wishing I had taken the time to address the problem privately. Yet, at the same time, I am still stinging from her two word response: “Shut Up!” And I know that she was making it unsafe for her, for other drivers and for the students.
As I grapple with this issue, I would love to hear you weigh in:
- What is your reaction to my critique and to her response?
- Are these issues “black and white”? If not, where is the grey?
- Do you agree with Maimonides’ instructions that we should “administer the rebuke in private, speak to the offender gently and tenderly, and point out that [we are] only speaking for the wrongdoer’s own good”?
- How do you react to Rabbi Ilea’s caution that “one is commanded not to say that which will not be heard”?
As always, I invite your insights and comments.