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. The cycle of Torah reading provides this same opportunity. Each parshah 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 kabalas haTorah 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 t’shuvah, of self-awareness and recalibration, of inspiration and will. Ki Savo is the parshah of the Tochachah (Rebuke). The connection between t’shuvah and rebuke appears self-evident, but exploring these topics in depth reveals an ever richer and perhaps less obvious connection. To better understand the connection between tochachah and t’shuvah, we must first understand the concept of flattery.
The Gemara (Sotah 41b) declares that anyone who is a flatterer, the fetuses in the womb curse him. This strange phraseology appears in another place, as well. What is the curse of the unborn child, and how does it relate to the problems of flattery?
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 (Niddah 30b). While we are in the womb, a mal’ach (angel) teaches us kol haTorah kulah (all of Torah), and just before we are born, this mal’ach strikes us on the mouth, causing us to forget everything we learned. As the Vilna Gaon explains, this refers 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 also learned 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 mal’ach 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 Tochachah
The purpose of rebuke is simple: Rebuke helps one fulfill his or her true purpose and actualize their 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 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 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 an unexpected and uncomfortable jolt of rebuke can stop that downwards slide and help change direction, creating a new chapter in one’s 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 his hypocrisies and contradictions have been revealed, he is seen for who he truly is, and becomes 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 he needs 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, the point where decisions are made and will is asserted. It is precisely when one is vulnerable, when he is exposed to his internal lies and hypocrisy, that genuine and lasting change is possible. When one flatters someone at this critical point in time, he removes 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 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 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.
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.
The True Purpose of Tochachah
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 tochachah 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 tochachah 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 HaShanah: 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 t’shuvah. 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.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.