SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM — Hilchos Lashon Hara 4:3-4
We have learned that if an average Jew does something forbidden by halachah, we are not allowed to tell others about this. The Chofetz Chaim teaches that even if we see the person commit the same sin numerous times, we should give him the benefit of the doubt. We should tell ourselves that whatever he did was unintentional; or that he did not know it was forbidden; or that he mistakenly thought that his behavior in this instance was merely not commendable, but was not actually forbidden.
Not only should we not tell others what he did, says the Chofetz Chaim, but we ourselves should not think badly of him. Rather than despise him, we should give him the benefit of the doubt.
What if we see someone enter a McDonald’s and eat a cheeseburger (G-d forbid)? Are we obligated to think that he did not know that this was forbidden, or that he forgot that cheeseburgers are treif? No, says the Chofetz Chaim, for every observant Jew knows that this is a sin. However, we should consider the possibility that he has regretted his sin and is determined never to repeat it. We should not tell others what we witnessed, but we should speak to the sinner in private in case he has not yet engaged in teshuvah. By attempting to convince the sinner to mend his ways, we will have fulfilled the mitzvah “Rebuke your fellow Jew”
However the Chofetz Chaim cautions us to also fulfill the next part of the verse: “and do not bear a sin because of him.” This teaches that we should offer criticism in a way that will not embarrass the sinner. We should speak to him in a soft, gentle way, so that he will not feel humiliated and he will be receptive to what we have to say.
Shlomo HaMelech taught: “The gentle words of the wise are heard.” When we criticize, we should do so gently. Otherwise, our words will probably be ignored or resented.
In the last years of Rabbi Avraham Pam’s life, a minyan formed in his home each week for the Shabbos tefillos. The first week that a new gabbai called people up to the Torah, he called up Rav Pam as “Moreinu (Our Guide) Rav Avraham ben Meir HaKohen.” Rav Pam’s father, who had been a rav and an outstanding talmid chacham, should have been referred to as “Harav Meir” rather than “Meir.” Rather than tell this to the gabbai directly, Rav Pam said to him, “My father, of blessed memory, learned in Radin together with Rav Elchonon Wasserman; he later became a rav and delivered a shiur in Gemara in Mesivta Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin.”
The gabbai understood the message. He later recalled, “I never felt bad when Rav Pam offered criticism; he did it in such a way that you did not feel bad.”
IN A NUTSHELL
We should give others the benefit of the doubt and not report their misdeeds to others; at the same time, we should offer rebuke when appropriate, in a gentle, respectful way.
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