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The Gift of Criticism

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Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness;
    let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head.
My head will not refuse it,
    for my prayer will still be against the deeds of evildoers. — Psalm 141:5

Criticism is not what people like to hear even when the word “constructive” comes before it. It has been said that most people would prefer to be damaged by praise than saved by criticism. Constructive criticism is beneficial to a person the same way that bad-tasting medicine can bring healing. However, most people prefer hearing their praises even though, like diet soda or candy bars, too much of something actually may be harmful to them.

The Talmud, Judaism’s oral tradition, recorded a conversation between the Jewish sages on this topic. One sage said, “I would be surprised if anyone in this generation can take rebuke. You tell a person to take a stick out of their mouth, and they’ll tell you to take a board out from between your eyes.”

In other words, if you point out the flaw in one person, they will point out an even bigger flaw in you. Instead of accepting the criticism and growing from it, people would rather turn the tables and point out another person’s shortcomings. This was true then, and it is true now.

Next, another sage said, “I’d be surprised if anyone in this generation knows how to criticize.” This sage countered that the reason people take criticism so badly is because no one knows how to give it properly. Criticism should be given with love and gentleness, not out of hate and harshness.

A third sage responded: “I swear that when Akiva and I were before Rabbi Gamliel, I would accuse him, but he even showered me more with love, as it is written: ‘Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you’ (Proverbs 9:8).”

This sage believed that how criticism is taken ultimately depends upon the receiver. If a person isn’t serious about life, he or she will hate being criticized no matter how it is given. However, those who are wise and know they can only benefit from learning how to be better will accept criticism with gratitude.

In Psalm 141 King David prayed that he should be such a person: “Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness; let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head.” David was open to criticism and actually invited rebuke because he knew that it would make him better. To David, criticism was kindness.

It’s never pleasant to hear criticism. Even David, who welcomed it, compared criticism to a “strike,” a blow. However, we can learn to appreciate constructive criticism and graciously accept it when we recognize that it is truly a gift that makes us better. When we can accept the harshest criticism, we ultimately will be deserving of the greatest praise.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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