Question: If one is giving Mussar discourses to the public, may one present bad things that are happening within the Jewish nation in order to arouse the listeners or is does this cause some sort of prosecution upon the Jewish nation?
Answer: The Gemara (Yevamot 49b) states that when the prophet Yashaya fled from King Menashe, he uttered a holy name and was immediately sucked into a cedar tree. When the officers began sawing the tree and the saw reached his mouth, Yeshaya’s soul departed. The Gemara explains that the reason this happened to Yeshaya is because he stated, “And I dwell among a nation of impure lips,” and Rashi explains that he was punished for calling the Jewish nation one of impure lips on his own. Rashi adds that Yeshaya did not say this “in a manner of rebuke,” from which we can infer that had he said the very same thing to offer reproach to the Jewish nation, he would not have been punished.
We see from the words of Rashi that if one speaks ill of the Jewish nation in order to offer rebuke, this would be permissible. The Meiri, Rabbeinu Avraham Min Hahar, and Rivan concur.
The Maharal of Prague writes in his commentary on the aforementioned Gemara that although the prophets would speak harshly to the Jewish nation, nevertheless, when addressing Hashem, they would be careful not to do so. Since Yeshaya did so when speaking to Hashem, he was punished.
This would seem to fall in line with the words of Rashi and the Meiri in that one may only speak ill of the Jewish nation when this is in the context of rebuke and rebuke, by definition, must be addressed to the Jewish nation. However, in the context of speaking and praying to Hashem, one must speak the merits of the Jewish nation.
However, we must realize that our generation is not like previous ones and the individuals offering rebuke today are not like those of the days of yore. There is much to delve in this topic. However, let us quote the words of the great Gaon, Rabbeinu Pinchas Ha’Levi Horowitz zt”l, author of the Hafla’a, in his Sefer Panim Yafot (end of Parashat Yitro) on this idea:
“Although the Tanna writes (Avot 4:10) states, ‘Be low of spirit before all men,’ nevertheless there is a time and place for everything, especially returning the masses from sin and removing the heart of stone from their flesh. About this does the verse in Tehillim (31:25) state, ‘Be strong and brave of heart, all those who yearn for Hashem.’ One must be strong and stand firmly against them like a mighty wall as Hashem commanded the prophet Yirmeya to fight with them and break the impediments of their hearts.
This can be alluded to in the Mishnah (Sotah 48a) which states, ‘When the Bet Hamikdash was destroyed, the Shamir worm and the sweetness of the honeycomb was abolished.’ The Shamir worm would cut through stone without the use of metal. The Shamir would be placed on the outside of the stone and the stone would split on its own. This is a reference to open rebuke but hidden love in that a rabbi must notify his flock of the punishments while taking care not to direct the Heavenly attribute of judgment against them, just like the Shamir which was mighty but was able to split the stone without touching it.
Another way to infuse words of Mussar into the heart of the listen is by peppering the words of rebuke with words of Torah and its commentaries which are sweeter than honey. As a result of the sweetness of the Torah, the harsh words of reproach contained within them will be more easily accepted. Indeed, doctors commonly mix sharp medications with other sweet ingredients so that it will be more easily consumed by the patient.
Nevertheless, our Sages taught (Arachin 16b), ‘I would be surprised if anyone in the generation knows how to accept rebuke or how to offer it.’ This is what the Gemara meant by saying, ‘When the Bet Hamikdash was destroyed, the Shamir worm and the sweetness of the honeycomb were abolished,’ which is a reference to both harsh words like the mighty Shamir as well as words as sweet as a honeycomb. There is almost no one who knows how to properly offer words of rebuke nowadays.”
This is indeed what we have witnessed to be the way of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l who would constantly bring the Jewish nation closer to Torah observance through loving and endearing words and he would only sparingly come out harshly against evil people who would attack the Torah and those who learn it. To the general public though, he would always speak pleasantly and lovingly. He would hint this using the verse, “The words of the wise are heard amid pleasantness.”
This response was submitted by our dear colleague, Hagaon Harav Gad Yazdi Shlit”a, beloved student of Maran zt”l.