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The Curse of Flattery, The Gift of Rebuke (Parshas Ki Savo)

parsha sefer devarim Sep 02, 2020
 

 

 

The families sat down together to watch the wedding video, and although there was a note of tension in the air, both families tried to put on a brave face. Reliving the wedding of their children should have been a joyous occasion, but this one was a marred by unpleasant memories. The families both struggled financially, and they had spent months saving for the wedding. Together, they had managed to procure the sum necessary to pay for this joyous occasion, and the Kallah's mother had brought the collective funds to the wedding to pay everyone at the end of the night. However, when the wedding was over and she went to retrieve the envelope from her purse, the money was gone. At first, fingers were pointed, threats were declared, and emotions ran high. Eventually though, when the money failed to show up, the families decided to put the matter on hold. They got together to watch the wedding video, hoping that this would help ease the tensions and allow the families to once again bond over this special occasion.

 

Daniel, the brother of the Kallah, had graciously offered to set up all the cameras to film the wedding, and he now played the video for the families. Everyone sighed as they watched the bride and groom prepare for the chuppah. The Kallah was radiant, and the chasson looked confident and excited, both of them thrilled to marry the person of their dreams. However, he also wore an expression of confidence and excitement, as if declaring to the camera that he was about to marry the most extraordinary woman in the world. The family watched the emotional chuppah unfold, then the ecstatic dancing, followed by a dinner full of bonding and joy before the next round of dancing. It was during the second dance that it happened. The chosson was dancing with his father and father-in-law, the Kallah with her mother and mother-in-law. In the corner of the screen, Daniel walked past his mother's purse, grasped the envelope, and quickly walked away. The whole family was in shock, as they slowly turned towards Daniel. Daniel sat there, unable to move, unable to utter a word. The blood rushed from his head, as he experienced the greatest embarrassment imaginable. His actions had been displayed on the screen for all to see, and he himself had set up the very equipment to film it. This was the ultimate rebuke.

 

Tochacha

 

Time is infused with infinite spiritual richness, and each point in time is a wave that carries with it layers of depth. The cycle of holidays is a course of spiritual progression that we can tap into as we advance towards our ultimate personal and collective destination.[1] The cycle of Torah reading provides this same opportunity. Each parsha has unique ideas and concepts that are particularly relevant to the time of year when it is read. As we go through this cycle year after year, we propel our kabbalas ha’Torah forward one level higher every year. Every time we restart the Torah cycle, we begin the same Torah, but on a more elevated level, turning the circular Torah cycle into an elevating spiral in time.

 

Elul is the time of teshuva, of self-awareness and recalibration, of inspiration and will. Ki Savo is the parsha of tochacha (rebuke). While the simple connection between rebuke and repentance appears obvious,[2] exploring these topics in-depth reveals an even richer, deeper, and perhaps less obvious relationship between these two themes.To uncover this connection, we must first understand the concept of flattery.

 

Flattery

 

The Mishnah[3] describes the following incident: When King Agripas got up in Yerushalayim to read from the Torah, he opened to the phrase "You shall not appoint a foreign king (ish nochri) over you”. As soon as he read these words, he began crying, as he knew his lineage disqualified him from being king.[4] The Jewish People immediately comforted him, saying, "Do not fear; you are our brother, you are our brother". 

 

The Gemara[5] quotes Rabbi Nassan’s comment on this incident: “At that very moment, Klal Yisrael brought a death sentence upon their heads because they flattered Agripas.” Rabbi Shimon Ben Chalafta proceeds along this line, stating that "the moment the fist of flattery prevailed, justice became perverted.”

Both Rabbi Nassan's and Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta's statements are puzzling, both in terms of content and wording. Why is flattery so harmful, to the extent that it could cause the Jewish People's destruction? It seems to have been a positive response here, saving someone from shame and discomfort. And why does Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta refer to the vehicle of flattery as a “fist”? Flattery seems neither violent nor extreme; its connection to a fist is perplexing.A "soft glove" or a "gentle touch" seem like more apt description.

 

Curse of the Unborn Child

 

The discussion of flattery continues in the Gemara,[6] with an even more enigmatic description. Rabbi Elazar declares that anyone who is a flatterer, the fetuses in the womb curse him. This strange phraseology appears in another place as well. The Gemara[7] states that whoever withholds Torah from those who wish to learn it, even the fetuses in the womb curse him.

 

What is the curse of the unborn child, and why is it directed at those who flatter others or withhold Torah?

 

The Unborn Child

 

In order to understand the curse of the fetus and its connection to flattery and Torah study, we must revisit a Gemara we have discussed several times before, which describes the initial stage of our formation.[8] While we are in the womb, a malach (angel) teaches us kol ha'Torah kulah (all of Torah), and just before we are born, this malach strikes us on the mouth, causing us to forget everything we learned. As the Vilna Gaon explains, thisrefers to the deepest realms of Torah, a transcendent Torah that lies far beyond this world, beyond the confines of space and time. This Torah is the very root of reality, and you were granted complete understanding of its every detail. Not only were you shown this level of Torah, but you alsolearned your specific share of Torah- you were shown your unique purpose in the world, and how your unique role fits into the larger scheme of the human story as a whole. You were given a taste of your own perfection, of what you could, should, and hopefully will become. When the malach struck you, you didn't lose this Torah; you only lost access to it. From this transcendent realm, you were birthed into the physical world with the mission to actualize everything you were shown in the womb, while in your perfect, primordial state.

 

The Purpose of Tochacha

 

The purpose of rebuke is simple: Rebuke helps us see where we have gone wrong, allowing us to see what we must change and improve in order to fulfil our purpose and actualize our true potential. Life is often difficult, mysterious, and overwhelming, and there are times when we fall, when we lose our clarity and direction, when our moral and spiritual compass becomes secondary to impulse and instant gratification. It is precisely at these points, at these moments of internal struggle, that we need inspiration, guidance, and yes, rebuke.

 

But rebuke does not only come from direct confrontation, and does not even need to come from another person. True rebuke is the experience we have we are confronted with the truth, and we clearly realize the contradiction between that truth and our current actions and lifestyle. When one is on the right path, growing every day, the truth is a guiding light in the storm of darkness. When one has lost their way, the truth can hurt. That hurt, though, is the ultimate rebuke. If we have the courage to embrace that hurt, to resist the temptation to shrug it off, to use it as guidance and inspiration to grow, that experience will lead us back on track towards fulfilling our true potential. This is the importance of tochacha. Without the realization that something has gone wrong, there is no impetus to change one's negative trajectory, to make new decisions.Change stems from friction and discomfort, from the inability to continue living the way one has until now. Sometimes, only an unexpected and uncomfortable jolt of rebuke can stop that downwards slide and help change direction, creating a new chapter in their life. That wake-up call is the ultimate gift, the ultimate act of love.

 

The Tragedy of Flattery

 

In order to understand the spiritual harm caused by flattery, it is necessary to examine the internal experience of one who is flattered. When a person finds himself in a vulnerable position, when their hypocrisies and contradictions have been revealed, and they are seen for who they truly are, they become broken and embarrassed. There are two avenues of response in such a delicate, fragile moment:

 

The first is to compliment and appease the person, attempting to prevent a complete breakdown. This is the aim behind flattery: to falsely praise and honor someone at the exact time when they need to feel the effects of rebuke. The second option is to give honest feedback and rebuke, catalyzing the breakdown process. On the surface, flattery appears to be the kinder and more sensitive approach. However, at the deeper root and core of this circumstance, flattery is the ultimate evil and rebuke is the ultimate kindness. Let us briefly explain the meaning of this.

 

The Turning Point

 

Growth takes place at breaking points, where decisions are made and will is asserted. It is precisely when one is vulnerable, when they are exposed to their internal lies and hypocrisy, that genuine and lasting change is possible. When one flatters someone at this critical point in time, they remove the impetus to change and stifle any chance of growth. "It's ok", "don't worry about it", "it happens to the best of us," cripples the impact and power of the truth.

 

A flatterer convinces someone who is on the wrong path that he is actually on the right path. Instead of helping him see the error in his ways- the flatterer encourages him- convincing him that he was actually correct. Now, not only is he unaware of the fact that he acted inappropriately, but his chance of doing teshuva and changing his ways are all but lost. The flatterer grants him moral immunity, alleviating the pain and impact of truth, effectively ensuring that this mistake will persist. This, in truth, is the ultimate act of evil.

 

The Role of a Teacher

 

A teacher’s role is to help their students grow and fulfill their potential. Therefore, a teacher must help students see the areas in which they struggle, as these are the exact areas in which they must grow. It is impossible to improve and build unless one first realizes where there is room for improvement.[9]

 

When someone is in the position to inspire change and growth, to help another person take the next step in their spiritual journey, and instead flatters them, they reject a vital opportunity, transforming an opportunity for growth into one of stagnancy and complacency.

 

The same is true of a chacham who does not teach Torah. He could have helped someone grow and develop, but chose instead to withhold his wisdom from them. He now becomes responsible for all the people he could have helped, inspired, and enlightened. He is to blame for all the spiritual growth that could have been, but isn’t. He could have guided them on their path towards eternity, but he never showed them the way.

 

Unborn Potential

 

We can now understand the curse of the unborn fetus. The fetus is shown the path of truth, given everything as a gift, and is then delivered a strike of love, charged with the mission to enter this world and fully actualize its potential. A fetus fully grasps the purpose of this life, the meaning of challenge and growth.

 

When a person in this world is given the chance to grow, to transcend his limitations, to take the next step in his spiritual journey, but fails to do so due to someone else's actions, that person is cursed by the unborn fetuses. This is because a fetus represents the ultimate expression of unborn potential, someone who sees so clearly what life could and should be, but is not yet given full expression into reality. The unborn fetus looks at this wasted potential, this unborn spiritual growth, and is pained by its lack of fruition.

 

In truth, the person himself who fails to take that next step in his spiritual growth was also once a fetus. His own fetus curses the person who prevents him from actualizing his potential. So whenever this occurs, the "concept" of the fetus and this person's actual fetus both curse the individual responsible for squandering this spiritual potential.

 

This explains both examples the Gemara gives. When someone withholds Torah from others,[10] he withholds their spiritual growth. Similarly, when one flatters someone at a time of potential spiritual growth, he robs them of that opportunity, destroying the inspiration and potential for change. In both of these cases, the unborn fetus curses them, pained by this theft of potential.

  

The Fist of Flattery

 

This explanation sheds light on the peculiar lashon used by Rabbi Shimon Ben Chalafta, who says that "the fist of flattery prevailed.” While flattery may appear to be a soft, gentle expression of kindness, flattery is actually a harsh, cruel blow. Flattery stunts a person’s spiritual growth, eliminating the possibility for change. It is no coincidence that the word for fist (egrof) shares the very same shoresh (root) as Agripas. By flattering him, they delivered a sharp blow straight to his spiritual core.

 

We now come full circle. There is another blow, which we recently mentioned, but this blow is of an entirely different nature. This is the blow that the angel gives every fetus right before they are born. The distinction between these two blows is profound.

 

The blow of flattery appears to be kindhearted and sympathetic, but is actually a cruel act of spiritual theft. The blow of the angel appears to be a cold act of violence, but is actually a loving act of bestowing spiritual purpose. The angel gives the fetus a blow on the mouth as a challenge, a mission, to enter this world and fulfil its potential, to earn, choose, and create its own greatness. Just as the midrash states that every blade of grass has its own angel who gives it a blow, commanding it to grow, every fetus is given that same blow of love, challenging it to grow and fulfill its potential.

 

The Practical Difficulty of Rebuke

 

While rebuke is easy to give, it is extremely difficult to take. Most people prefer being told how great they are, not how great they could be. This is why practically implementing rebuke is so challenging and why tochacha is such a difficult halachic topic. It is forbidden to rebuke one who will not listen, because such rebuke will only be destructive: it might cause the person hurt and emotional pain, and cause them to turn away from growth.

           

How, then, can we learn from rebuke? Rebuke is effective only if we are deeply committed growth. When we are endlessly looking for ways to improve, evolve, and adapt, rebuke becomes a welcome tool for growth. When we can negate our egos and embrace our purpose in this world, we welcome opportunities to improve. Nevi'im (prophets) were known to perceive rebuke no differently than praise. Everything was a question of how to ultimately and most effectively devote their lives to Hashem, to the truth, and to their spiritual growth.

 

The Rambam therefore states that one who hates tochacha can never do teshuva.[11] If someone believes that they are perfect, refusing to acknowledge any possible wrongdoing or room for improvement, they cannot possibly grow or perform teshuva. Teshuva is the process of acknowledging that we have strayed from the path back towards our true self, our fetal self, and committing to return there, back to our fetal state of perfection. One who hates rebuke rejects his fetal state, and as a result, causes the unborn fetus to curse him.

 

The True Purpose of Tochacha

 

There is no question that rebuke is difficult to accept. Even acknowledging our faults privately, within ourselves, without anyone else seeing who we really are, is extremely painful. Our struggles and failures make us feel weak and inadequate, undeserving of love, incapable of greatness. But the true purpose of tochacha is not to show us how low we are, but how great we can be. Knowing where we have failed gives us direction for how to improve. It also reminds us of something crucial: we are charged with the mission of becoming great, and we can achieve this. We may never achieve complete perfection, but we can become a little better every single day.

 

The ultimate tochacha is coming face to face with who we could be, with our fetal selves, and realizing that we did not actualize this potential. This is the objective of Elul on our road towards Rosh Hashana: to recognize that truth and then come back into the world of space, time, and choice, and choose to become that person, to fully manifest our fetal potential, and fulfill the ultimate expression of teshuva. This is the story of life. May we be inspired to confront our deficiencies, not with the shield of flattery, but with rebuke, using it to propel us towards our true destination: our higher self, our collective self, and ultimately, to Hashem.

 

[1] For a full explanation of this concept, see the chapter on Shavuos (located at the end of this sefer), “Experiencing Shavuos as We Spiral Through Time”.

[2] Rebuke is often seen as the catalyst of repentance.

[3] Sotah 41a.

[4] There is a machlokes whether this was Agripas l, whose father wasn't Jewish, or Agripas ll, whose mother wasn't Jewish, but regardless, his genealogy made him unfit to be king, as a king needs pristine lineage.

[5] Sotah 41b.

[6] Sotah 41b.

[7] Sanhedrin 91b.

[8] Niddah 30b. For a fuller discussion of this topic, see chapter on Parshas Bereishis, section: “Your Creation Story”. See also chapter on Parshas Mishpatim for a deeper explanation of whythis process occurs.

[9] Of course, this can only be done successfully if the student whole-heartedly wants to grow and is willing to hear about their deficiencies. Someone like this will proactively ask their teachers to provide every possible way to improve.

[10] Sanhedrin 91b.

[11] Hilchos Teshuva 4:2.

  

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