Accept Criticism with Gratitude

Yael Eckstein  |  November 13, 2022

Yael and grateful elderly woman embracing.

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

In honor of my father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, of blessed memory, and his lifework helping Christians understand the Jewish roots of their faith, I offer you one of his devotional teachings from the beloved Psalms.

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 praise even though, like diet soda or candy bars, too much can be harmful to them.

The Talmud, Judaism’s oral tradition, records a conversation between the Jewish sages on this topic. One sage says: “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 says: “I’d be surprised if anyone in this generation knows how to criticize.” This sage countered that the reason why 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.

Accept Criticism with Gratitude

A third sage responds: “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).”

According to this sage, how criticism is received ultimately depends on the receiver. If a person isn’t serious about life, they will hate being criticized no matter how it is given. However a person who is wise and knows that he can only benefit from learning how he can be better will accept criticism with gratitude.

In Psalm 141 King David prays 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 is open to criticism and invites rebuke because he knows that it will make him better. To David, criticism is kindness.

It’s never pleasant to hear criticism. Even David compares it to a “strike,” a blow. However, we can learn to appreciate constructive criticism and welcome it when we recognize that it is truly a gift. When we can welcome the harshest criticism, we will ultimately be deserving of the greatest praise!

Your Turn:

Don’t forget to tune into my podcast, Nourish Your Biblical Roots, which airs today with a new episode all about the Shabbat, the Sabbath!