Chapter 6, Law 9
Letting It Go
*This class was mistakenly sent out to the Pirkei Avos mailing list, and we are sorry if you're receiving this for the second time.
"If one's fellow sinned to him and he does not want to rebuke him or speak to him at all because the sinner is particularly simpleminded or his mind is unsound, and he forgives him in his heart without hating or rebuking him, this is a pious practice (Heb., 'middas chassidus'). The Torah (Levit. 19:17) was particular only regarding one who hates [his fellow on account of the wrong he did him]."
This week's law continues and concludes the discussion of the previous few weeks. In past weeks we discussed the obligation to rebuke one's fellow. As Leviticus 19:17 states, if your fellow wrongs you -- or you otherwise catch him sinning, you must not bottle it up and hate him within, but you must rather come forward and ask him why he acted the way he did. For as we saw, direct (or perhaps indirect) confrontation is ultimately the best means of true reconciliation.
Here the Rambam adds an important caveat. Although open and frank discourse is often the best means of patching up relationships, at times the offender is just beyond reason. Some people are just so impervious to spirituality and healthy relationships that there's really no point attempting to reason with them. And provided you are not bottling up animosity (transgressing "You shall not hate your fellow in your heart"), you can just let it go. Don't hate him. Feel bad for such a G-dless, pathetic individual. Someone who lacks any religious inclinations, who cannot be led to consider that anything exists beyond man and the immediate, is frankly not even worthy of your hatred. Fairly condescending, but basically correct.
I don't have a whole lot to add to the Rambam's wise words this week, but I do believe it's reasonable we could extend his words somewhat. In the Rambam's mind, the only sort to be beneath constructive criticism is the imbalanced, someone who is so crazed or corrupted as to be beyond rational discourse. And such doesn't rate very high in the mind of a rationalist like the Rambam. As we all know, however, there are many who are perfectly sane and levelheaded, yet who just lack the moral bearings to be receptive to our sermonizing. And to them as well, silence may be the better course.
Not long ago, I attended a lecture given by a visiting scholar who happened to be an old friend from rabbinical college, R. Yosef Veiner. During the course of the lecture, he quoted the historical episode of R. Shimon ben (son of) Lakish, generally known in the Talmud as Reish Lakish. As the Talmud (Bava Metsiah 84a) and other sources attest, he began his career as a bandit. He later met up with the strikingly handsome R. Yochanan, one of the leading scholars of the first generation of the Talmud. R. Yochanan, recognizing Reish Lakish's great potential -- in whatever he endeavored -- offered Reish Lakish the hand of his own sister -- whose beauty was even greater than his own -- in marriage if Reish Lakish would only agree to study Torah. The deal was struck and Reish Lakish eventually grew to be Talmud scholar nearly equaling R. Yochanan.
The story thus far is quite well known, appearing in a prominent location in the Talmud. Another detail of it, mentioned in a much lesser-known Midrash, is not. The Midrash adds the following postscript -- that Reish Lakish, after "seeing the light" and heading off to study Torah, never again returned to the cave in which his accomplices were hiding. In spite of their past close kinship, he never once made contact with them again. As far as they knew, he had simply disappeared off the face of the earth.
The speaker who mentioned this was interested in a different issue and moved on from there. In passing, however, he made an interesting observation. Why did Reish Lakish, who clearly enjoyed a strong kinship with his former comrades, never again return to them? Why not take advantage of his association and use it to influence them for the better? If anyone could have reached them it was he. Why leave them to their vomit if he, no doubt more than anyone else, might have brought them back to G-d?
Perhaps the answer is that Reish Lakish realized he could not be the one to approach his former cohorts. They still knew him as fellow bandit. If he would now approach them as bandit-turned-rabbi -- and the only one among them who now knew better -- it just wouldn't have worked. There would be too much "Who does he think *he* is?" in the air. The friction created by the sudden spiritual chasm which had formed between them would have created too much ill will. The uneasy sense of difference would have made open and candid dialogue almost impossible.
And this too is yet another consideration we must keep in mind in approaching those less religious than we. When a person becomes more involved with religion, he may find that his past friends and relatives are the hardest -- rather than the easiest -- for him to reach. They may share a rapport with him, but of a different sort entirely. And more than anyone else, they may resent that one of their number -- perhaps one they knew as a small child -- now returns thinking he's better than the rest of them and alone knows better.
Thus, as we've observed in past weeks, the mitzvah (obligation) to rebuke one's fellow is not a simple one, but one which requires a serious judgment call -- whom to approach, what to say, and whom to avoid altogether. And as in many of the great challenges of life, there is no one simple answer. For true service of G-d requires not only great erudition in Torah study, but also the keen understanding of the workings of our fellow man.