Emor: How to Speak



Baal Shem Tov Insights – Issue 51: Emor 5771


Who has not been tempted to criticize and chastise someone who we feel is behaving inappropriately? Who of us is not guilty of speaking harshly even to a loved one?

But have your strong words ever impacted someone? Have they inspired and motivated anyone to grow?

In the wake of the Osama bin Laden’s death, we are reminded of the long history of religious violence, aggression perpetrated in the name of faith, which has in our time come to the fore in the shape of Muslim fundamentalism. One of the terribly mystifying things about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and religion-based terrorism in general – which is glaringly missing from the discourse presently consuming the pages of our newspapers, screens and websites – is their modus operandi: The need to use aggressive rhetoric and violence to achieve their religious goals.

In stark contrast, this week’s Torah portion teaches us an alternative – the original – modus operandi on how to influence others. This method – an approach driven by love and sensitivity – was epitomized by the Baal Shem Tov, who adamantly challenged the preachers in his time who would harshly rebuke their listeners.

*  *  *

To Rebuke or to Ignore? To Fight or to Accept?

When witnessing a transgression our first inclination may be to rebuke the transgressor, and chastise the perpetrator. Others take the other extreme: denying or ignoring the problem.

On a larger scale and more extreme level, this question has plagued religion from its inception: How should religious authorities address the sinner? With zealous aggression and punishment or with looking the other way? How should faith approach sin? Through annihilation or tolerance? How should we confront evil? Through hate and war or through Ghandi-like passive opposition?

The same can be asked of the parent and educator: How to discipline a wayward and disobedient child or student? With castigation or with passivity? With severity or leniency? Should we be unyielding or accepting?

But is there another alternative? Is there a way to remedy the problem without resorting to negative force? A way to be kind without compromising strong values?

A Third Approach

The opening of this week’s Torah reading, Emor, offers us a third approach.

The chapter begins with the words: “Speak … and you shall tell them.” Our sages associate this commandment with the obligation of education. The redundancy – “speak” and “tell them” – informs us, says the Talmud, “to caution the adults concerning the children.” 1 The Hebrew word for “caution” – lihazhir – shares the same root as the word zohar, meaning “radiance.” Also the word for “speak” is emor (rather than dabeir), which means to speak softly, kindly. 2

This conveys a fundamental lesson about education, especially religious education. We must speak softly and kindly to our children and students, educate them about life’s dangers, but do so in a way that radiates the beauties of life.

Discipline is a most necessary component in the education. An unshaped and impressionable child needs direction and guidance to grow into a healthy and virtuous adult. Discipline helps avoid the pitfalls and traps of our own selfishness.

Yet, how often do we witness – and how many of us have been hurt if not damaged – by discipline devoid of love? Especially in the religious world, how many of us have been affected by dogmatic, fear driven discipline?! We have witnessed the devastating psychological effects of many people growing up in homes and schools where they were indoctrinated with fear and guilt, and threatened with the wrath of God.

Educate with Love

But the Torah clearly tells us – indeed, it actually commands us – to educate our children with radiance and love. Discipline is necessary, but as a dimension in radiance, kindness and love.

As it is in the microcosm so is it in the macrocosm – in the nature of religion: Passionate faith can spill over into dogma and intolerance. We must be vigilant that the path of faith should be saturated with love and inspiration.

Emor utterly negates Bin Laden’s intolerant and violent methods of religious coercion. It teaches us that we must always approach faith with gentleness and love. And that is the ultimate way of affecting people, even infidels.

The Baal Shem Tov’s Opposition to Rebuke

This Emor method – speaking gently and kindly – was epitomized by the Baal Shem Tov, who adamantly challenged the preachers in his time who would harshly rebuke their listeners. Many stories with the Baal Shem Tov attest to this fact.

The Baal Shem Tov taught:

A person should give rebuke with love, as the verse says, “G-d chastises whom He loves.” 3 However, one who seeks to aggrandize himself by admonishing others, or who rebukes solely to make a living, and tries to arouse the audience with a wailing voice, as alluded to in the verse, 4 “My tears were my bread,” arouses stringent judgment against the Jewish people, as alluded to in the verse, “G-d sent the venomous serpents against the people,”5 which refers to two types of admonishers.

This can be understood with a parable:

There was once a king who banished his only son from his presence, but sent two of his servants to keep an eye on him. After a while, one of the servants returned and slandered the prince to his father for misbehavior. The second servant also returned with the same report of misbehavior, however, he spoke out of pain for the king’s pain, and pain for the prince who was banished from his father’s presence to the point where he had completely forgotten how to conduct himself in a royal fashion, and all his royal grandeur and been transformed into disgrace. 6 Upon hearing the second servant’s words, the king had compassion on his son and sent to fetch him.

Similarly, there is a type of admonisher who speaks out publicly in condemnation of the Jewish people, thus arousing the Primal Serpent, as alluded to in the verse, “G-d sent the venomous serpent against the people,” who poisoned them with their venomous words. [First of all, these admonishers are hypocrites, because they are really interested in their own personal benefits, despite their claim that they are concerned about G-d’s honor. Secondly, they are shaming people while exonerating themselves from rebuke.] 7 However, one should include oneself together with the audience, as the verse alludes, 8 “Rebuke, rebuke your friend, and don’t bear any sin for him.” [The repetition] alludes that one should first rebuke oneself before rebuking another.

There are three categories [of rebukers]: gold, silver, and bronze. The Hebrew word for bronze is nechosheth, which resembles nachash, which means a snake. These are the rebukers who arouse dissent, as said: they are “bronze,” nechosheth – snakes. Then there is a category of gold, which is total mercy and compassion. Silver is the third, in-between, approach, to rebuke but with pleasant words of love, which enter the heart of the listener.

Speaking with Sensitivity

One day, the Baal Shem Tov instructed several of his disciples to embark on a journey. The Baal Shem Tov did not tell them where to go, nor did they ask; they allowed divine providence to direct their wagon where it may, confident that the destination and purpose of their trip would be revealed in due time.

After traveling for several hours, they stopped at a wayside inn to eat and rest. Now the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples were pious Jews who insisted on the highest standards of kashrut; when they learned that their host planned to serve them meat in their meal, they asked to see the shochet of the house, interrogated him as to his knowledge and piety and examined his knife for any possible blemishes. Their discussion of the kashrut standard of the food continued throughout the meal, as they inquired after the source of every ingredient in each dish set before them.

As they spoke and ate, a voice emerged from behind the oven, where an old beggar was resting amidst his bundles. “Dear Jews,” it called out, “are you as careful with what comes out of your mouth as you are with what enters into it?”

The party of chassidim concluded their meal in silence, climbed onto their wagon and turned it back toward Mezhibuzh. They now understood the purpose for which their master had dispatched them on their journey that morning.

The Secret to Influencing Others

As a young man, the late chassid Rabbi Sholom Ber Gordon, once asked the Frierdiker Rebbe how one is supposed to speak with others who may deserve a few strong words. “Should I use harsh words of rebuke?” Rabbi Gordon wondered.

The Rebbe replied: “Since you traveled through Turkey, and everything offers us a lesson in serving G-d, learn from the method used in a Turkish Bath. A person first enters the hot, steamy room. Once he has warmed up, relaxed, absorbed the heat and is perspiring freely, he climbs to a higher bench in the steam room, where it is even hotter due to the rising heat. After he has thoroughly been saturated with the heat, he leaves the room and asks an attendant to smack him with oak leaves…

“This is how we must speak with another, even one who may need some rebuke: First warm him up, with kind and loving words. Then elevate him to a higher plane. And then… he will ask you to smack him…

Inspiring through Love

Witnessing the great destruction done by fundamentalists who not only rebuke but also resort to violence in trying to impose their faith on others, the lesson of Emor has never been more important.

Instead of aggression or passivity, Emor calls upon us to influence but through the soft approach of love, that reaches into the heart and helps motivate a person to mend his ways and grow.

Even if rebuke may work at times, it often ends up demoralizing and breaking a person, instead of motivating him.

So in the final analysis the most the most influential tool to change the world is gentleness.

Sources: Toldos Yaakov Yosef Parshas Kedoshim. Keser Shem Tov sections 131. 262.

© Copyright 2011 The Meaningful Life Center.

Show 8 footnotes

  1. Talmud Yevamot 114a. Cited in Rashi’s opening commentary to this week’s portion.
  2. Mechilta, Rashi Yisro 19:3.
  3. Proverbs 3:12.
  4. Psalms 42:4.
  5. Chukas 21:6.
  6. Implied in this second servant’s report is that the king himself, by banishing his son among common folk, is responsible for his degeneration. This is stated explicitly in Ben Pores Yosef 68d.
  7. The text in the brackets is found in the original source.
  8. Kedoshim 19:17.

Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ruth Minka
13 years ago

ruth minka sent the following message:
I think it is important to acknowledge jewish fundamentalism, as well. I think it has a very harsh impact on Israeli politics. Thank you for listening.

13 years ago

thank you – the parables help me learn these important lessons.

Yoseph Lerman
13 years ago

Butiful Artical on how to deal with a child. Daber seems to be more harsh then Emor In this week Parashat Emor
we are taught how to speak to our children. Just like asem told moses to speak directly to the Cohanims children without Aarons presence.
On another note Bronze in not Nechoshet
Nechoshet in Copper.

13 years ago

I agree very much with your article. I also think it is important to give oneself kudos when one is able to admonish in a warm, sensitive way. It requires a tremendous amount of self-restraint (gevurah) to criticize with love and sensitivity. Basically, kids push buttons and not reacting to these buttons getting pushed is tantamount to a levee holding back very high floodwaters. So for a person whose levee occasionally breaks should not beat himself up on those occurrences but dust himself off and start rebuilding the levee.

M. Degel
13 years ago

Great piece of advice!
It deserves to be paid and not just 10$ as a part of big collection of wisdom but with the cost of perfectly done, scientifically approved, psychological workshop with broad spectrum of application in our life.
Thank you very much!
Shabbat Shalom!

Ruth Housman
13 years ago

I loved this commentary and want to say one thing, and that is, the similarity between the word EMOR, to speak in Hebrew, and AMOR(E) for love…Romance languages. Perhaps putting the MORE into Amore is where its at for us all.

Yosef S
13 years ago

A must read for everyone. Thank you for sharing your insight on this vital issue.

rahmiel hayyim
13 years ago

This is a beautiful complement to the recent book by Morati Sarah Yehudit Schneider of http://www.astillsmallvoice.org in her book You are What You Hate, a spiritual approach to enemies. May your future submissions on the writings of the Baal Shem Tov flow as wondrously as this weeks excellent commentary.

janet muir
13 years ago

From my own experience, if someone would have only spoken to me alone or with one other of the way i thought or behaved, i would have considered my ways, and changed. But, instead they determined to harm me through every possible way, my ways have changed but not due to their treatment of me, but because of the grace of G-d. Now,they ( i believe)actually carry not only my ways but have created more pain and hatred within others. How can any revenge be considered a right thing to do? I ask G-d to be my judge and avenger, man is much too cruel.

Steven Reneau
13 years ago

Thank you for telling the truth. While listening to Crises In Faith, you amazed me with such simplicity in conveying a human trait. May G-d always continue to guild you.

13 years ago

So in the final analysis the most the most influential tool to change the world is gentleness. Indeed, and may Hashem grant some of us survival to the end of the two generations it will take to achieve its goal. At the same time, I pray we have leaders who will have insight to see evil and the courage to eradicate it.

The Meaningful Life Center