Time is layered with infinite spiritual richness, whereby each point in time carries with it waves and layers of depth. The cycle of holidays provides a layer of spiritual progression that we can tap into, carrying us towards our ultimate destination of time itself; interestingly, the cycle of Torah reading provides this opportunity, as well. Each parshah has unique ideas and concepts embedded within it that are relevant to the specific time of year that it is read. As we go through this cycle, year by year, we propel our kabalas haTorah forward one level higher through the transformative effects of each week. Thus, we turn this circular cycle into an elevating spiral in time.
Elul is the time of t’shuvah, of self-awareness and recalibration, of inspiration and will. Ki Savo is the parshah of tochachah – rebuke. The connection between t’shuvah and rebuke appears self-evident, but an in-depth exploration of these topics reveals an ever richer and perhaps less obvious connection.
In order to more fully understand the connection between tochachah and t’shuvah, we must first understand the concept of flattery.
The Mishnah in Sotah (41a) 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 nachri) over you.” As soon as he read these words, he began crying, as he knew his lineage disqualified him from being king. [There is a machlokes whether this was Agripas I, whose father wasn’t Jewish, or Agripas II, whose mother wasn’t Jewish; but regardless, his genealogy made him unfit to be king, as a king needs to have superb yichus.]
The Jewish people immediately comforted him, saying, “Do not fear; you are our brother, you are our brother.”
The Gemara (Sotah 41b) quotes Rav Nasan’s comment on this incident: “At that very moment, klal Yisrael brought a death sentence upon their heads because they “flattered” Agripas.
Curse of an Unborn Child
The discussion of flattery continues in the Gemara (Sotah 41b), with an even more enigmatic description of its severity. Rav Elazar declares that anyone who is a flatterer, the unborn fetuses in the womb curse him.
What is the curse of the unborn fetus? And how does this relate to the problem of flattery?
The Unborn Fetus
In order to understand the meaning behind the unborn fetus and its connection to flattery, we must revisit a Gemara we have discussed several times that describes the initial stage of our formation. The Gemara (Nidah 30b) explains that when you were just a fetus, you were in a perfected and transcendent state of being. While in utero, a mal’ach taught you kol haTorah kulah, all of Torah, and you understood all of reality with a crystal-clear lens. However, just before you were born, this mal’ach struck you on the mouth, causing you to forget everything you learned.
Two obvious questions arise: Why does the mal’ach make you forget what you’ve learned? But more importantly, if he’s going to cause you to forget it, why even teach it to you in the first place?
Changing the way we view the human mind, the Vilna Gaon answers as follows: When you learned all of Torah, it doesn’t mean you were learning Chumash with Rashi. Rather, it means that you were learning your Torah; you were being 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. Most importantly, though, you didn’t lose it; rather, you lost access to it. Instead of it disappearing completely, this state of self became buried deep within your subconscious. The reason is as follows: What you received in the womb wasn’t real, it was merely a gift; something unearned and undeserved. The goal of life is to come into this world and rebuild all that you once were in the womb. This time, however, it will be real, since you’ve built it yourself. In essence, your job in this world is not to create yourself, but rather to recreate yourself; to re-attain your original state of perfection, as you were shown by the mal’ach. This time, though, it has to be done through free will, by choosing to become great. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty, and asserting your will-power, can you fulfill your true potential. In essence, our entire life is a story of teshuva – returning to our original, higher, and true self.
The Purpose of Tochachah
The spiritual purpose of rebuke is simple: It is to help one fulfill his or her true purpose and potential in this world. Life is difficult, mysterious, and sometimes overwhelming. 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 times 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. Rebuke is simply the experience one has when confronted with the truth, and the subsequent realization of how one’s actions and lifestyle contradict that truth. When one is on the right path, growing every day, the truth is a guiding, shining light in the storm of darkness. When one has lost his or her way, the truth can hurt. That hurt, though, is the ultimate rebuke. If one who has the courage to embrace that hurt, to refuse the urge to shrug it off, to use it as guidance and inspiration to grow, that experience will lead people back on track towards fulfilling their true potential. This is the importance of tochachah. 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 the unexpected and uncomfortable jolt of rebuke can stop that downwards slide and help one create a new chapter in his or her life. That emotional 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 the one who is flattered. When people are in a vulnerable position, whereby their internal contradictions and hypocrisy have been revealed, and they are seen for whom they truly are, they become broken and embarrassed. There are two possible reactions in such a delicate and fragile moment:
The first is to compliment and appease them, to try to prevent a complete breakdown. This is the aim behind flattery: to give false praise and honor to someone at the exact time when he needs to feel the effects of rebuke.
The second option is to give honest feedback and rebuke, finalizing the breakdown process.
At first glance, flattery appears to be the kinder and more sensitive approach. However, at the absolute 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 people are vulnerable, when they are exposed to their internal lies and hypocrisy, that genuine and lasting change is possible. When people flatter someone at this critical point in time, they remove the impetus to change and stifle any chance of growth. “It’s okay,” “Don’t worry about it,” “It happens to the best of us” cripples the impact, full force, 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 t’shuvah and changing his ways is all but lost. The flatterer grants him moral immunity, alleviating the pain of truth, and in doing so, ensures that this mistake will persist. This, in truth, is the ultimate act of evil.
The Curse of the Unborn Child
We can now understand the curse of the unborn fetus. The fetus is shown the path of truth, is given it all as a gift, and is then given a blow of love, given 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, and due to someone else’s actions, he fails to, 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 expression.
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 stealing this spiritual potential.
The Difficulty of Tochachah
Without question, rebuke is difficult to absorb. Even acknowledging our faults 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 and greatness. But the true purpose of tochachah is not to show us how low we are, but to show us how great we can be. The knowledge of where we have gone wrong gives us direction for where to improve, and it reminds us of something crucial: We have a mission to become perfect, and we can achieve greatness. We may never achieve complete perfection, but we can become a little higher and better every single day.
The ultimate tochachah is coming face to face with who we could be, with our fetal selves, and realizing that we didn’t become who we were meant to be. This is the opportunity that life gives us, this is the objective of Elul and our road towards Rosh HaShanah: to recognize that truth, to embrace it, and to then come back into the world of space, time, and choice, and choose to become that person, to fully manifest our fetal potential, and perform the ultimate expression of genuine t’shuvah. This is the story of life. May we be inspired to embrace our deficiencies, not with the handicap of flattery, but with the inspiring tool of rebuke, which will propel us forwards towards our true destination: to our higher selves, to our collective selves, to Hashem Himself.