Devar Torah for Parshas Devarim 5781

Soft Words

This Shabbos we start the final book of the Five Books Of Moses, the Book of Deuteronomy, or in Hebrew Devarim, which means “words”. Most of this book is Moses speaking to the Children of Israel, giving them final instructions, and reproof for their sins over the past 40 years in the desert. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 22 February 1040 – 13 July 1105) comments on the opening two (Hebrew) words, “And These are the Words…”

THESE ARE THE WORDS — Because these are words of reproof and he is enumerating here all the places Bnei Yisrael provoked God to anger, therefore he suppresses all mention of the matters in which they sinned and refers to them only by a mere allusion, hinted to in the names of these places, out of regard for Israel. (Rashi on Devarim 1:1)

There are two ways to remind someone of a past sin:

  • Direct: Telling the person the exact sin they did, and perhaps even the punishment they will get if they don’t repent.
  • Indirect: Hinting to the sin, but without saying the details outright.

At a particular Yeshiva on Shabbos, the lights in the dining room were left off. As the students were enjoined from directly telling the gentile janitor to turn on the lights, they hinted by saying, “Oh, it is so dark in here. If only the lights were on!”, but the janitor did not take the hint. They finally turned to the head of the Yeshiva for advice. He walked right to the janitor and said, “Igor, turn on the lights!” and Igor responded by turning on the lights! In shock, the students asked, “But we thought on Shabbos that one can only hint?” The Head of the Yeshiva respond, “For Igor, THAT was a HINT!”

There are times when one needs to use direct language in order to arouse someone to repent for their past sins. But Moses knew that at the end of the 40 years in the desert, that was not the time for harsh or direct words.

So too today, most of the Jewish population cannot accept harsh words directly. If you go to a businessman and tell him that he can’t steal by misreporting his income, it is highly unlikely he will change his ways. If you see a fellow Jew in a non-kosher restaurant eating a cheeseburger and you say, “CAUGHT YOU”, that won’t accomplish anything.

What can we do?

First, there are some people who are always looking to improve, and those few people can usually take the direct comment, especially if it is said in a kind way.

For other people, one can do like Moses did, and hint to past sins by mentioning the names of places. Someone could hint to a past sin (for example, eating in a non-kosher restaurant) in casual conversation, “I just found out that the Moses Restaurant isn’t even kosher. Can you imagine that? I thought it was kosher all these years!”

And sometimes it is best to leave things unsaid, and perhaps to just model good behavior. In such a case, the words won’t have any effect, but it is likely that the actions will speak loudly enough to be “heard”. For example, if someone talks all the time in synagogue and won’t accept rebuke from anyone, perhaps a random Rabbi standing next to him and NOT talking during the prayers could have a very positive effect, as a typical congregant would be embarrassed to talk while a Rabbis is praying next to him.

May G-d grant you all the ability to know how to rebuke your fellow Jew properly, which could mean with direct words, indirect words, or no words at all.

Good Shabbos.

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