In 2016, we offered study materials, commentaries and activities on the concept of mahloket l’shem shamayim (disagreement for the sake of Heaven/ constructive conflict). This year we add materials on the challenging mitzvah of tochacha (often translated “rebuke”), also known as constructive communication. Classical Jewish sources offer rich wisdom on how to conduct constructive and connected tochacha conversations when one person has said or done something hurtful. We invite you to choose which topics are most useful for your community this year.
TOCHACHA: The Mitzvah of Constructive Communication
Just before the universally known mitzvah, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), we find a challenging mitzvah: “Do not hate your kinsman in your heart. Admonish your neighbor but incur no guilt because of them.” (Leviticus 19:17)
Many questions immediately arise as we ponder this mitzvah. Among them are: What is “tochacha” or “admonishment” and why would we speak this way to people we care about? To which relationships does this mitzvah of tochacha apply? What is the connection between “admonishment” or “rebuke” (as the word is often translated) and hating another in our heart? What good could come of this practice?
A careful study of the classical commentaries and laws flowing from this brief passage on tochacha reveals a reservoir of wisdom about the conduct of difficult conversations when one person has hurt another. Our classical texts use this mitzvah as a locus of reflection and guidance on how to conduct difficult conversations: when to challenge another on their behavior and when to refrain; how to speak the truth in a way that supports the relationship rather than harming it; how to know whether or not we are ready to conduct the conversation in a way that is constructive, moral and even sacred.
Painful words, slights, and insults happen every day in ordinary human relationships. There is scarcely a person who cannot learn more about how to respond to these situations in a way that is helpful and growthful both for the individuals and for the relationship. In a time when public conversations are notoriously coarse, aggressive, and dehumanizing, the principles and practices associated with tochacha have much to offer us in our public life as well.
To learn more, check out the following: