In describing the tragedy of flattery, the Mishna (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 nochri) 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 pristine lineage.) The Jewish people immediately comforted him, saying, “Do not fear; you are our brother, you are our brother.”
The Gemara (Sotah 41b) quotes Rabbi Nosson’s comment on this incident: “At that very moment, Klal Yisrael brought a death sentence upon their heads because they flattered Agripas.” Rabbi Shimon Ben Chalafta proceeds along this line, stating that “at the moment, the fist of flattery prevailed, [and] justice became perverted.”
Rabbi Nosson’s and Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta’s statements are puzzling, both in terms of content and wording. Why is flattery so harmful, to the extent that it would cause the Jewish people’s destruction? It seems to have been a positive response here, saving someone from shame and discomfort. And why does Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta refer to flattery as a “fist?” Flattery seems neither violent nor extreme; its connection to a fist is perplexing. A “soft glove” or a “gentle touch” seem like more apt descriptions.
Curse of the Unborn Child
The discussion of flattery continues in the Gemara (Sotah 41b), with an even more enigmatic statement. Rabbi Elazar declares that anyone who is a flatterer, the fetuses in the womb curse him. This strange phraseology about fetuses in the womb appears in another place as well. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 91b) states that whoever withholds Torah from those who wish to learn it, even the fetuses in the womb curse him.
What is the curse of the unborn child, and why is it directed at those who flatter others or withhold Torah?
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 that we have discussed several times before that describes the initial stage of our formation. The Gemara (Niddah 30b) explains that while we were in the womb, a malach taught us kol haTorah kulah, and just before we were born, this malach struck 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. (Quoted in Maalos HaTorah by Rabbeinu Avraham, brother of the Vilna Gaon. See also Even Sheleimah 8:24.) 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 malach 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 primordial, perfect state.
The Purpose of Tochacha
The purpose of rebuke is simple: Rebuke helps us see where we have gone wrong, clarifying what we must change and improve in order to fulfill our purpose and actualize our true potential. Life is often difficult, mysterious, and overwhelming, and there are times when we fall, when we lose our clarity and direction, and when our moral and spiritual compass becomes secondary to impulse and instant gratification. It is precisely at these points, at these moments of internal struggle, that we need inspiration, guidance, and yes, rebuke.
But rebuke does not only come from direct confrontation; it does not even need to come from another person. Rebuke is the experience of being confronted with the truth and of clearly realizing the contradiction between that truth and our current actions and lifestyle. (The story of Yosef and the brothers is a great example of this spiritual concept. Yosef’s sudden revelation of “Ani Yosef, ha’od avi chai – I am Yosef, is my father still alive,” was the epitome of rebuke. He didn’t need to say anything else. The very revelation of the truth was the ultimate rebuke.)
When we are on the right path, growing every day, the truth is a guiding light in the storm of darkness. When one has lost their 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, and to use it as guidance and inspiration to grow, it can get us back on track toward fulfilling our true potential. This is the importance of tochacha. Without the realization that something has gone wrong, there is no impetus to change one’s negative trajectory and 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 one change direction, creating a new chapter in their life. That wake-up call becomes the ultimate gift, the ultimate act of love.
The Tragedy of Flattery
In order to understand the harm caused by flattery, it is necessary to examine the internal experience of one who is flattered. When a person finds themselves in a vulnerable position, when their hypocrisies and contradictions have been exposed, and they are seen for who they truly are, they become embarrassed and broken. There are two possible responses 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 when they are at their lowest. The second option is to give honest feedback and rebuke, completing 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 where decisions are made and will is asserted. It is precisely when one is vulnerable and when they are deeply aware of their internal lies and hypocrisy that genuine and lasting change is possible. Flattering someone at this critical point in time removes the impetus to change and stifles any chance of growth. “It’s okay,” “don’t worry about it,” or “it happens to the best of us” cripples the impact and power of the truth.
Flattery convinces a person who is on the wrong path that they are actually on the right path. Instead of seeing the error of their ways, flattery convinces them that they are actually correct. Now, not only are they unaware that they acted inappropriately, but their chance of doing teshuva and changing their ways are all but lost. The flatterer grants the person moral immunity, alleviating the pain and impact of truth. In doing so, they have effectively ensured that the mistake will persist. This, in truth, is the ultimate act of evil.
The Role of a Teacher
A teacher’s role is to help their students grow and fulfill their potential. Therefore, a teacher must help students see the areas in which they struggle, as these are the exact areas in which they must grow. It is impossible to build and progress unless one first realizes where there is room for improvement. (Of course, this can only be done successfully if the student whole-heartedly wants to grow and is willing to hear about their deficiencies. Someone like this will proactively ask their teachers to provide every possible way to improve.)
When someone is in the position to inspire change and growth, to help another person take the next step in their spiritual journey, and instead flatters them, they discard a vital opportunity, transforming an opportunity for growth into one of complacency and stagnation.
The same is true of a chacham who does not teach Torah. He could have helped people grow and develop, but chose instead to withhold his wisdom. He now becomes responsible for all the people he could have helped, inspired, and enlightened. He is to blame for all the spiritual growth that could have been but didn’t happen. He could have guided them on their path toward eternity, but he failed to show them the way.
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, and 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 has not yet expressed any of that potential 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 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.
This explains both examples in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 91b). When someone withholds Torah from others, he withholds their spiritual growth. Similarly, when one flatters someone at a time of potential spiritual growth, he robs them of that opportunity, destroying the inspiration and potential for change. In both of these cases, the unborn fetus curses them, pained by this theft of potential.
Understanding the Fist of Flattery
This explanation sheds light on the peculiar expression used by Rabbi Shimon Ben Chalafta, who says that “the fist of flattery prevailed.” While flattery may appear to be a soft, gentle expression of kindness, flattery is actually a harsh, cruel blow. Flattery stunts a person’s spiritual growth, eliminating the possibility for change. It is no coincidence that the word for “fist” (egrof) shares the same shoresh with “Agripas.” By flattering him, they delivered a sharp blow straight to his spiritual core.
We now come full circle. There is another blow, which we recently mentioned, but this blow is of an entirely different nature. This is the blow that the angel gives every fetus right before they are born. The distinction between these two blows is profound.
The blow of flattery appears to be kindhearted and sympathetic, but is actually a cruel act of spiritual theft. The blow of the angel appears to be a cold act of violence, but it is actually a loving act of bestowing spiritual purpose. The angel gives the fetus a blow on the mouth as a challenge and a mission: to enter this world and fulfill its potential, to earn, choose, and create its own greatness. Just as the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 10:6) states that every blade of grass has its own angel who gives it a blow, commanding it to grow, every fetus is given that same blow of love, challenging it to grow and fulfill its potential.
The Practical Difficulty of Rebuke
While rebuke is easy to give, it is extremely difficult to receive. Most people prefer being told how great they are, not how great they could be. This is why implementing rebuke is so challenging and why tochacha is such a complicated halachic topic. It is forbidden to rebuke one who will not listen, because such rebuke will only be destructive: it might cause the person hurt and emotional pain, causing them to turn away from growth instead of pursuing it.
How, then, can we learn from rebuke? Rebuke is effective only if we are deeply committed to growth. When we are endlessly looking for ways to improve, evolve, and adapt, rebuke becomes a welcome tool for growth. When we can negate our egos and embrace our purpose in this world, we welcome opportunities and advice for improvement. Neviim were known to perceive rebuke no differently from praise. Everything was a question of how to most effectively devote their lives to Hashem, to the truth, and to their spiritual growth.
The Rambam therefore states that one who hates tochacha can never do teshuva (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Teshuva 4:2). If someone believes that they are perfect, refusing to acknowledge any possible wrongdoing or room for improvement, they cannot possibly perform teshuva or grow. Teshuva is the process of acknowledging that we have strayed from the path, and recommitting to return to our true self, to our fetal state of perfection. One who hates rebuke rejects his fetal perfection, and as a result, causes the unborn fetus to curse him.
The True Purpose of Tochacha
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, and incapable of greatness. But the true purpose of tochacha 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 tochacha 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 self-awareness: to recognize the truth of who we are capable of becoming, and then coming back into the world of space, time, and choice, and choosing to become that person, to fully manifest our fetal potential, and fulfill the ultimate expression of becoming our true selves. 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 toward our true destination: our higher self, our collective self, and ultimately, to Hashem.