Tochecha: How We Rebuke

Picture the scene: The Israelites have been wandering for 40 years in the desert and are finally on the banks of the Jordan river just mere miles from the Holy Land. Moses, knowing that his time as their leader is coming to end, offers one final speech to his people. This not-so-short speech, which is basically the entire book of Deuteronomy, is a look back at their shared history and words of advice for their future. Specifically in this first portion of Deuteronomy, D’varim, Moses does not mince words and offers a harsh rebuke of his people. He says:

…you rebelled against the command of your God. You grumbled in your tents… I said to you, “Do not be terrified; do not be afraid…your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as God did for you in Egypt…” In spite of this, you did not trust in your God, and when God heard what you said, God was angry and solemnly swore that no one from this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your ancestors… And because of you God became angry with me also and said, “You shall not enter it, either.

We have name for this type of unsolicited advice in Judaism – tochecha. Literally, tochecha is a reproof or a rebuke, a spoken frankness that reveals a fixable flaw. The purpose of giving a tochecha is to point out an important truth that someone just seems to keep missing. It is one of Judaism’s most spiritual practices, not to be dished out carelessly or in anger, but with genuine concern for another human being.

In the case of Moses and the Israelites, the tochecha from Moses is related to people’s lack of faith in God. Moses, seemingly coming from a place of love, is worried that if they continue to grumble, and fear, and fail to have faith, then it will not end well for the Israelites; especially without Moses to have their back as has throughout the journey. Moses knows he will no longer be there to help his people and so this final speech, this final rebuke, is an act of love.

Fundamentally, tochecha is a mitzvah of connection — a cornerstone of healthy relationships and strong community. If we can trust our neighbors to tell us the truth lovingly, and if we can hear a reprimand with calm consideration, then our path to one of Judaism’s most sought after spiritual destinations, shalom/wholeness, is well paved.

Tochecha — the art of giving and receiving honest feedback or rebuke — is part of the biblical formula for sustaining friendships and relationships. According to the talmudic rabbis, it is an integral part of love; without tochecha, love cannot endure. (Bereshit Raba 54:3) I see evidence of this every day while counselling wedding couples. Those who are skilled at giving and receiving feedback are able to sustain healthy relationships over the long term, while those who lack such skills are ill-equipped to deal with relationship challenges when they arise. Tochecha requires great integrity and impeccable communication skills. It also requires the use of an array of psychological capacities and virtues, including humility, empathy, mindfulness, courage, non-defensiveness, and integration. While highly evolved individuals welcome tochecha as an opportunity for self-improvement, most people defend against having their shortcomings pointed out to them, and they will employ a range of psychological defenses, including denial and projection, to protect themselves from the pain of reproof. According to Estelle Frankel, a psychotherapist and Jewish educator, we increase the likelihood that our words will be heard by paying attention to three things: our timing, tone, and intention.

Timing: The rabbis teach that just as it is a mitzvah to offer words of tochecha when our words are likely to be heard, it is a mitzvah to stay silent when our words will not be heard. (Yevamot 65) Before speaking, we need to be mindful of our own emotional state as well as that of the listener. If we are emotionally triggered or angry, or notice that the listener is in a state of agitation, it is better to wait for a more opportune time — one that is mutually agreed upon.

Tone: A voice that is angry, disdainful, blaming, or judgmental can undermine our message. It is better to communicate tochecha with humility and empathy. Remembering that we are all flawed and that we all possess the capacity for wrongdoing is key. When possible, offer feedback and insight as an equally imperfect individual — no better or worse than anyone else. As it says in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2, Mishnah 5), “Do not judge your neighbors until you have stood in their place.”

Intention: Tochecha is not simply a matter of venting; rather, it involves a conscious effort to heal a breach in a relationship or to help others to awaken to their spiritual and moral deficits. Tochecha is most effective when we make use of our psychological capacity for integration — the ability to see ourselves and others as whole beings with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. With integration, we do not define people by their mistakes and flaws; rather, we point out specific criticisms at the same time that we remember the person’s essential goodness. When giving tochecha, it is helpful to express our loving concern, respect, and appreciation alongside any critique. Doing so reduces defensiveness and any sense that the criticism is an assault on the individual’s character.

Looking back now upon Moses’ words of rebuke in this chapter, we find that perhaps he could have done it a bit better. One of the amazing aspects of our tradition is that our prophets are not perfect and that we actually learn quite a bit from their failings. Moses’ tone seems overly harsh and the setting perhaps not ideal. In addition, I think there is one more major flaw in Moses’ rebuke.

The Baal Shem Tov (c.1698-1760), the founder of Chasidism, taught that if we see another person doing something ugly, we should meditate on the presence of that same ugliness in ourselves. He writes that we should, “know that it is one of God’s mercies that God brought this sight before our eyes in order to remind us of that our own faults, so as to bring us back in repentance…” He then gives examples such as, “if you saw someone desecrating Shabbat, or desecrating God’s name some other way, you should examine your own deeds and you will certainly find among them desecration of the Shabbat and cursing God’s name.”

According to the Baal Shem Tov sometimes when we judge others about a particular character fault, we might actually be subconsciously critiquing a character fault of our own. Since we’re uncomfortable doing a self-critique because it hurts too much, yet at the same time we don’t like that aspect of ourselves, we “project” that unwanted character trait onto another individual and critique the other person—which is a much more comfortable thing to do. What the Baal Shem Tov is asking us to do is to be aware that we might subconsciously do this, and to focus our critique inward instead.  

Moses is near the end of his life, knows he won’t be going into the land and is working through some issues – trying to come to terms with his own failings and thus projecting them on others. Yes, the people had anger issues, trust issues and complained a lot during the journey. But so did Moses! Moses claims that he won’t be allowed in the land because of the people’s sin. Here Moses is failing to see his own flaws and projecting them on his people.

When we practice tochecha, who are we doing it for? To what degree do we see our own failings in our loved ones? It is not always so easy in the moment but we most constantly ask ourselves before giving criticism, who is this for? Is the timing and tone right? What are my intentions? Will this person actually listen? How can I give feedback in the most thoughtful, least humiliating way?

I’ll end with a short story about the famous 19th century rabbi, Israel Kagan, also known as the Chofetz Chayim, which illustrates one possible, non-shaming way to give tochecha. A student at the yeshiva was caught smoking on the Shabbat. When he was called into the Chofetz Chayim’s office, he anticipated being harshly rebuked. Instead, the old rabbi took the young man’s hands into his own and gazed into his eyes with loving concern and sorrow. A tear fell from the rabbi’s eyes, landing on the student’s hand as he uttered three words: “Shabbos, Shabbos HaKodesh – Shabbat, Shabbat is holy.” The young man was deeply distressed to have caused his teacher such sorrow. On the spot, he repented and never broke the Sabbath again. The rabbi’s tears, an expression of his love and concern, left an indelible mark on the young man’s soul.