(1 Samuel 20:18-42)
May 31, 2003
This week’s special haftarah, for when Rosh Hodesh falls on a Sunday, is the scene of a violent confrontation between Jonathan and King Saul, his father, over Saul’s aggressively antagonistic behavior towards Jonathan’s friend, David. Jonathan reproaches his father’s irrational violence with the expectation that his father might have a change of heart. However, Jonathan’s attempt to alter his father’s behavior had the opposite effect. His father’s response to his entreaty was violent. Saul thrust out at his son in anger, taunting and chastising him and posturing physical violence: “Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan and he said to him: You son of perverse rebellion, don’t I know that you have chosen the son of Yishai [David] to your own shame and unto the shame of your own mother’s nakedness? …And Saul cast his spear at him to smite him.” (1 Samuel 20:30,33)
This tragic and telling episode served as the impetus for an interesting debate in the Talmud over the extant to which a person has the responsibility to attempt to correct the behavior of another person. The Torah commands us: “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart. Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of him.” (Leviticus 19:17) In other words, if you see someone doing something wrong, you have a religious obligation to attempt to help that person correct his or her behavior. As we note from the confrontation between Jonathan and his father, such attempts are not always successful. The question we must ask then is to what extent are we obligated to fulfill this commandment?
“How far should a person go in reproving someone? [This issue was debated by the Talmudic sages.] Rav said: Until the point where the reprover might be beaten. Samuel said; Until the point where the reprover might be cursed. And Rabbi Yochanan said: Until the point where the reprover might be reproached.. This same argument is found among the sages of the period of the Mishnah…. [A later sage associated the opinions of these sages with the following verses.] Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said: All of these opinions are based on the same episode: ‘Then Saul became angry at Jonathan and he said to him; You are a rebellious son…’ And it is written: ‘And Saul took his spear to strike him [Jonathan].’ The one who said ‘Until he be beaten’ [said so] because it is written: ‘to smite him’; the one who said ‘Until he be cursed’ [said so] because it is written: ‘to your own shame and the shame of your mother’s nakedness’; and the one who said ‘Until he be rebuked’ [said so] because it is written: ‘Then Saul’s anger was kindled.’” (adapted from Babylonian Talmud Arachin 16b)
While this debate seems a bit comical, the tradition takes this responsibility quite seriously and codifies Rav’s position [the most extreme position] that a person should continue his attempts to correct another until that person threatens physical harm: One who sees another person sin or doing something which might lead to sin, it is a commandment to return that person to the right path and inform that person that s/he is sinning against him/herself by doing sinful acts, as it is written: “Reprove your neighbor”. One should reprove another person regardless of whether the sin is interpersonal or between that person and God. This should be done privately, in a calm way with moderate words and the person should be informed that it is for their own good.. If the person accepts the reproof, that is good, but if not one should continue until the person might hit you and say that s/he is not willing to listen. (adapted from Maimonides Mishnah Torah Deot 6:7)
Why does the tradition take such a strong position on this issue? Perhaps because Judaism feels very strongly about communal responsibility and ignoring a single individual’s downfall is more tragic than the tradition can possibly bear.