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The Gift of Criticism

Listen to advice and accept discipline,
    and at the end you will be counted among the wise.
— Proverbs 19:20

It’s not easy to hear criticism. Whether it be from a boss, a spouse, or a friend, even well-meaning, constructive criticism can be difficult to hear. It’s natural to want to please those around us. We want to feel good about ourselves, and having our behavior challenged can be a blow to our self-esteem – but only if we let it.

In Proverbs, King Solomon taught that if we listen to advice and take discipline in stride, we will come out of the experience wiser: “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” While the pill may be hard to swallow, it might just be the exact medicine that we need.

In my school days I had a very demanding writing teacher. One of our assignments was to compose a short story. However, that was only part of the assignment. The second part was to read the story to the entire class, and then it was the job of our peers to critique our writing. I remember feeling extremely uncomfortable as my peers pointed out the flaws in my writing and my teacher highlighted every grammatical mistake. However, I can’t remember ever learning as much from any other homework assignment either. It was in many ways a painful experience, but at the same time a profound growing experience.

Now, this isn’t to say that we should listen to everyone’s advice. Like most people, I’ve received my fair share of bad advice that I was wise enough not to follow. This is why the Jewish sages explain that the first part of the verse which directs us to “Listen to advice” means that we should listen and at least consider it. We should give the advice a fair hearing. If the advice seems good, we’ll benefit from it. As the sages teach: “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.” If the advice seems off, we can leave it behind.

However, the sages explain the next phrase of the verse, “accept discipline” as referring to God-given discipline. Oftentimes, God sends us unpleasant circumstances in order to teach us something. Sometimes, God gives us challenges simply so that we might grow from them. When God sends a lesson our way, we must accept it unconditionally. God’s discipline will make us wiser and better.

Next time someone offers us advice, instead of running from it, let’s embrace it. When we feel the hand of God teaching us difficult lessons, let’s be grateful for them. As it is often said, we are here to “live and learn,” and when we do, we will live more powerfully, make better decisions, and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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