"The branches of his tree extend into the public domain," one claimed. "They're a public hazard, interfering with the camel traffic. Master, you must surely rule that he is obligated to remove the tree."
The tree owner fidgeted silently, hoping against legal hope that somehow the tree could be spared.
Rav Yannai sat silently in thought, and finally, cryptically ruled, "Go home today, and come back tomorrow."
Puzzled but always respectful, the parties agreed to do so.
When they returned on the next afternoon, Rav Yannai issued a clear and definitive ruling.
"It is obvious that you are obliged to cut the tree," he said to the tree owner with little doubt as to the accuracy of his ruling.
But the tree owner had one last appeal up his sleeve.
"But my master also owns a tree whose branches extend into the public domain," he said.
Rav Yannai replied, "Go and see. If my tree is still there, you may keep yours. But if mine is cut down, then you must cut yours, too."
Apparently, Rav Yannai had been busy with his saw overnight, anticipating the ruling he'd be issuing the next day. (For the record, the Talmud records that up to that point Rav Yannai hadn't thought about the negative impact of his tree on public traffic, thinking instead that the pubic enjoyed the shade it provided.)
Right there, in the shadow of the ever-popular "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," another mitzvah quietly sits: "Thou shall surely rebuke thy friend." And while this may seem rude or intrusive, the Torah regards the obligation of mutual rebuke as the engine of communal righteousness.
To be sure, the Torah immediately adds safeguards, prohibiting us from publicly humiliating our wrongdoing friend, and enjoining us from engaging in rebuke that we know will be futile. But carried out appropriately and with good common sense, rebuke is a vitally important activity. Both our sages and our own experiences have taught "a person cannot perceive his own flaws." There is no way that any of us can achieve continuing moral and religious growth, unless we are willing to point out flaws to one another. (And unless we are willing to accept constructive criticism from others.)
But the story of Rav Yannai points to a nasty Catch-22 in the rebuke mitzvah system. The Talmud wonders why Rav Yannai was so particular about cutting his own tree before he issued his ruling. Couldn't he have just as well done so immediately afterward? The Talmud then concludes that we learn from Rav Yannai that you must first "adorn yourself. And only then, tell others that they should do the same."
It is not permissible, and it probably isn't effective, to rebuke a friend for a flaw that we ourselves also possess. We need the system of mutual rebuke because we cannot perceive our own flaws. But if we cannot perceive our own flaws, then we run the constant risk of urging others to "adorn themselves" when we utterly lack the necessary credentials to so do.
The whole system therefore grinds to a halt. Rabbi Tarfon bemoaned this paralysis, commenting, "I would be surprised if there is anyone in our generation who can deliver rebuke. If one says, 'Remove the splinter from between your eyes,' the other will respond, 'Remove the beam from between your eyes.'"
How then are we to go about fulfilling this vital mitzvah? How then are we to enable the ones we love to grow and achieve greater moral and spiritual refinement?
Fortunately, there is another way to go about it. The tradition recognizes a way in which one can deliver rebuke without necessarily having to meet the criterion of being completely personally "adorned." Love can take the place of perfection.
As we read in the parsha a few weeks ago, God specifically chose Aaron to be the one who diagnosed the skin condition tzara'at, which was an external manifestation of the person's ethical flaws (in particular that of habitually speaking ill of others). God knew that Aaron, although not without blemish himself, overflowed with love for each and every one of the people. Aaron was the one who reconciled friends and spouses, pursued peace and loved all. If Aaron were to say to you, "Dear friend, there is flaw in your character that you need to repair," you would not question that he was right.
Rebuke that is a function of and which flows from love avoids the Catch-22 altogether. Rebuke is the catalyst for moral and religious growth, and true love is the necessary prerequisite for rebuke.
"Be among the disciples of Aaron," the legendary sage Hillel taught. There is realistically no other way to fulfill the mitzvah upon which all of our individual growth and development hinges, and, in the end, the mitzvah upon which human progress hinges.
Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B'nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.