Through a Mussar Lens: To Rebuke with Honor
I have recently been fascinated to learn how the brain functions. A student of Mussar—and anyone who wants to realize their personal potential—needs to understand how the brain works. In saying that, I’m just rephrasing what Rabbi Yitzchak Izaak Sher said in the 1930s. Rabbi Sher was the head of the Mussar yeshiva at Slabodka in Lithuania in those days, and he wrote:
The first principle concerns understanding the process of thought formation. It is obvious that if a person does not know and recognize his own character, he will find the study of Mussar to be of no avail, for he has no idea what he lacks or what he must correct. He cannot undertake to follow the Mussar way of life until he fully understands the processes of thought formation and the modes of thought development. (Foreword to Cheshbon HaNefesh by Rabbi Menachem Mendal Leffin)
To take an example that applies to many of us, a person dealing with anger is operating in the dark unless he or she understands that anger is a product of the limbic brain, and the neuronal pathways along which anger flies through the brain are among the most hardwired. Anger moves through the brain at supersonic speed, in contrast to conscious, deliberate thought, which creeps through the brain at a much slower speed.
Knowing this one fact helps us understand what a challenge it is to implement one of the core teachings of Mussar, and of Judaism for that matter, which is to be erech apayim—slow to anger. In Pirkei Avot (2:15) we read the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer, who said: “Be not easily moved to anger.” Being slow to anger is one of the 48 methods of personal transformation that I delved into in my book, With Heart in Mind, based on another section of Pirkei Avot. The Torah ascribes the trait of being slow to anger to God, and since one of the primary guidelines of Mussar is to model our behavior on what we know of God’s ways, it follows that if God responds slowly to provocation, then we too should strive to delay our reactions.
And therein lies the challenge. How can a spiritual seeker intervene in that hardwired, rapid-fire anger reaction that is connected to our survival instinct?
When we probe the tradition for its lessons, sometimes we need to look not only at the teachings themselves but also at the juxtaposition of teachings. In the same teaching about being slow to anger, Rabbi Eliezer provides us with a practice to accomplish that goal. He wrote: “Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own.”
Our focus in this edition of Yashar is on honor, the middah of kavod, and it is not hard to recognize that our own tendency to be impatient, irritated and angry is so often directed at other people.
Stop for a moment and reflect on a recent incident when you spoke sharply to someone. Can you detect any trace of respect and honor in that behavior? Likely not. It is hard to imagine how a heart enflamed with anger can also be available to honor.
While Rabbi Eliezer seems to have had a straightforward appreciation for the importance of honoring others rather than raging at them, Rabbi Yochanan introduces a twist. He teaches (Yoma 23a) that when the honor of a scholar is offended, that person has a firm obligation to take revenge and bear a grudge, “like a snake,” he says, or else that scholar is unworthy to bear the title talmid chacham, a wise student.
Not only does Rabbi Yochanan seem to be contradicting Rabbi Eliezer’s guidance to treat everyone with honor, he also seems to be telling us to overlook the explicit commandment of the Torah that states, “lo tikom v’lo titor”—do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge” (Leviticus / Vayikra 19:18). How can he possibly justify such a position that seems to conflict so boldly with a Torah commandment?
Rabbi Yochanan’s answer is to qualify that “lo tikom v’lo titor” relate only to monetary issues and not to matters having to do with kavod/
Why would Rabbi Yochanan insist that a scholar respond aggressively to someone who denigrates him? The answer may be that one who denigrates a scholar not only dishonors the individual but also what that individual represents. To insult a Torah scholar is to insult the Torah, and the scholar who defends his honor is meant to be acting not on behalf of his own bruised ego but in defense of the honor of the Torah and tradition he represents.
From this perspective, we can gain a surprising insight that will show us that Rabbi Yochanan’s teaching does not, in fact, contradict Rabbi Eliezer’s instruction that we honor everyone. The scholar is empowered to defend the honor of the Torah, but where in that do we learn that the scholar is relieved of the obligation to honor others, even the one who has denigrated him? Rabbi Yochanan said nothing of the sort. In defending the honor of the Torah, we are also still commanded to be careful to uphold the honor of the individual with whom we are dealing at that moment. Those are dual and not mutually exclusive obligations.
We have entered the rich Mussar field of how to give rebuke. It is a mistake to think that honoring people requires that you let them do whatever they want. Another biblical injunction commands us to rebuke and reprove those around us because we have responsibility for their well-being and the path they follow. But to give rebuke in such a way as to honor the other person at the same time—that is a spiritual art form of the highest order.
Rabbi Avraham Twerski tells that when he was a child and his father wanted to correct his behavior, he would rebuke him with the Yiddish words, “Az pasht nisht”—that doesn’t suit you. The implicit message he got was that his tawdry behavior did not suit the holy soul he was. The individual was being honored at the same time as the behavior was being criticized.
Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the great leader of 18th century Lithuanian Jewry, reiterated that we have an obligation to correct other people with rebuke, but he qualified that instruction by saying that someone who is not capable of rebuking without anger is relieved of that mitzvah. Yes, we do have an obligation to help people find the best path for their behavior and even to tell them when we think they have gone off the track, but not with anger. Standing by silently and not offering your feedback dishonors the other person because it suggests you do not care enough about them to say something. When you stretch yourself to give rebuke in a way that still upholds the honor of the other person, you effectively maintain his or her kavod and the honor of the tradition, our dual obligations.
We cannot undo the hardwiring of the brain that makes anger an innate reaction to which we are all subject. What we can do, however, is build parallel networks that balance and inhibit the anger reflex. Since our tendency is to get angry at other people, making it a firm practice to accord honor to others creates a counter-balancing inner pathway. By taking on practices that build up the habits of honoring others, we humanize ourselves, in the sense that we differentiate ourselves from animals, which act only on their innate instincts. Rabbi Eliezer has given us good guidance on how to reach the spiritual level that is our potential.
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