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When a Bad Word Is Better

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It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person
     than to listen to the song of fools.
Like the crackling of thorns under the pot,
     so is the laughter of fools.
     This too is meaningless.
— Ecclesiastes 7:5–6

Children have a keen capacity to differentiate between authenticity and insincerity. They can tell when you praise them and really mean it and when you say half-heartedly, “great job!” and continue on with your business. As adults, our aptitude for deciphering fakeness may be less honed, but we, too, can usually tell the difference between a sincere compliment and something that is said with an ulterior motive. Such empty praises may feel good for the moment, but if they are rooted in falsehood, the effect will quickly fade away. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel good to receive credit for something we did not accomplish or praise for something that we are not.

This is what King Solomon meant when he wrote in Ecclesiastes: “Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless.” Before ovens were invented and food was cooked over an open fire, thorn branches were used to create a quick, but short-lived fire. This “crackling of thorns under the pot” is like a foolish compliment. It provides warmth for a moment, but quickly dies out. Such empty praises are “meaningless.” They do nothing to help the receiver of the praise or guide them on a proper path.

On the other hand, authentic rebuke, though cold and startling at first, has a long-lasting effect and can actually change a life. This is what Solomon meant when he wrote: “It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools.”

Case in point: Mickey Mantle, the famous New York Yankees baseball player, tells how as a teenager playing in the minor leagues, he wasn’t much of a star. In fact, due to his poor performance, the young Mickey became discouraged. Feeling sorry for himself, he decided that he had had enough and called his father to come and take him home. When his father arrived, Mickey didn’t give the expected sympathy and reassurance. Instead, the father looked his son in the eyes and said, “Okay, if that’s all the guts you’ve got, you might as well come home with me right now and work in the mines.”

His rebuke was like a slap in the face, but the point was made. Mickey decided to stick it out and went on to make baseball history.

Friends, let’s remember that sometimes the greatest gifts come disguised as something less than pretty and appealing. It doesn’t feel good to be rebuked, but good advice or sound criticism can improve our lives infinitely. Let’s be brave enough to seek out advice for self-improvement from those we trust and who love us. Better the rebuke of the wise than foolish praise.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

Hebrew Word of the Day
February 15, 2016
Theme: Emotions

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