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Why Do I Resent Criticism?

What a Heretic Learnt in the Court of the Maggid about Self-Esteem

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    1441 views
  • July 16, 2020
  • |
  • 24 Tamuz 5780

Solomon Maimon (1753-1800)

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Class Summary:

In this week’s Torah reading we come across the silence of the Children of Gad and Reuben in the face of harsh rebuke from Moses, comparing them to the spies who dissuaded the nation from entering Israel. Yet despite the fact that they were planning to assist the Jews in war, they remained silent throughout the rebuke, not defending themselves. We didn’t they speak up?

Why did the Sefas Emes remain quiet as his famous grandfather, the first Rebbe of Ger, rebuke him undeservedly?

These two stories, along with fascinating teaching recorded by the tragic Jewish philosopher and heretic Solomon Maimon which he heard in the court of the Maggid of Mezritch, teach us some important lessons about the beauty and importance of healthy criticism.

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.

But why is it hard for us? Why do so many of us jump at the first criticism we hear? Why do we implode or explode when someone criticizes us?

Dedicated by Mehran Javaherian, in memory of Bashi ben Mashallah

Moses’ Rebuke

The last few portions record the Jewish people’s steady advance through the Wilderness toward the Land of Israel. In this week’s reading, Matos, the Jewish people already find themselves on the threshold of the Holy Land, in the freshly conquered territory just on the East Bank of the Jordan River.

Before the people are ready to move on westward, however, the two enterprising tribes of Reuben and Gad notice the East Bank is not so bad itself. These two tribes have an enormous amount of livestock, and the land sits unoccupied, with plenty of open pasture: it seems like a perfect match. But when representatives from the two tribes approach Moses with the request that they be allowed to waive their portion in the Land of Israel in exchange for the right to settle the land on the other side of the Jordan, he is less than pleased.

Moses gives it to them with both barrels:[1]

Moses said to the descendants of Gad and the descendants of Reuben, "Shall your brethren go to war while you stay here? Why do you discourage the children of Israel from crossing over to the land which the Lord has given them?...

Behold, you have now risen in place of your fathers as a society of sinful people, to add to the wrathful anger of the Lord against Israel. If you turn away from following Him, He will leave you in the desert again, and you will destroy this entire people.

Moses minces no words. In a long rebuke, spanning ten verses (Numbers 32:6-15), Moses exclaims that the proposition of the tribes of Reuben and Gad were a cowardly betrayal: at the hour of the Jewish people’s greatest need, they are abandoning their brethren to fight on their own. Aside from the dent this would put in the Jewish people’s fighting force, the psychological damage to their morale would be even worse. This was an act of treason, sedition, and treachery. It was a rehash of the sin of the spies, when the spies returned and sowed despair in their hearts of the people, depleting them from the will to conquer their homeland. As a result, they spent four decades wandering in the desert. Now, 40 years later, these two tribes were undermining the Jewish people’s greatest aspirations. With their own hands, they would kill the dream that had endured for 40 years, after an exile of 210 years.

Moreover, Moses concluded, this move by Reuben and Gad was frankly a dangerous one. Testing G-d once more tempted another national catastrophe and threatened the outright destruction of the Jewish people.

As Moses furiously denounced these alleged traitors, the representatives maintained a respectful silence and listened. Finally, after Moses was through with his harsh rebuke, they spoke up: (32:16-19)

They approached him and said, "We will build sheepfolds for our livestock here and cities for our children. We will then arm ourselves quickly [and go] before the children of Israel until we have brought them to their place…

We shall not return to our homes until each of the children of Israel has taken possession of his inheritance.

Reuben and Gad’s proposal, in other words, was never about shirking from their responsibilities towards their people or cutting their brothers loose to wage war on their own. That had never been their intention. While they did not want to settle the Land of Israel on the West Bank, they were fully prepared to enter it with their people, to help conquer and settle it. Only then, say the two tribes, would they return to Transjordan, rejoin their families, and settle their own land.

“Ahh,” says Moses, if that is the case, this idea isn’t so bad after all. Moses accepted their request, so long as they fulfilled the conditions they had laid out on their side of the bargain.

And so it was.

Why Didn't They Speak Up Earlier?

There is something odd about the exchange. If it had never been the intention of these tribal representatives to leave their brothers on their own, why didn't they say so immediately?

Moses’ opening words to them after their request were: Moses said to the descendants of Gad and the descendants of Reuben, "Shall your brethren go to war while you stay here?At that very moment, they should have clarified their position and say: “We will go to war with our brothers.” We just want to settle this land on the East after we help our brothers conquer their land. That would have shut the lid on things.

Moses' stern rebuke is recorded in the Torah in ten verses, making it exceptionally long monologue for Biblical standards. He speaks of the story of the Jewish people's quest to settle in the Land of Israel, puts their request in historical context, he repeats the entire story of the spies, and recalls the decree that befell Israel as a result; he castigates and accuses them of rising as a generation of sinners. Yet throughout all of this, these modest petitioners who were apparently being falsely accused, are completely quiet. Why didn't they speak up right away?

When they finally answer, it becomes clear that Moses had no qualms with them. He readily agrees to their proposal. It sounds almost like he is saying to them, "Why didn't you say so!" So why couldn't they have just cleared things up from the beginning?

Up All Night

There is a lovely Chassidic story that sheds light on the above question.[2]

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir (Reb Itche Meir) Alter of Gur (1799-1866), a small town not far from Warsaw (known today as Gora Kalwaria), was the brother-in-law and foremost student of the intensely brilliant Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (1787-1859). He was known as the “Chidushei HaRim,” after the title of his Talmudic and Chassidic works. Following the passing of his own master, he founded a Chassidic dynasty, becoming (in 1860) the first Rebbe of Ger. He became an influential figure on the landscape of Polish Jewry and a greatly respected spiritual leader. Reb Itche Meir suffered greatly in his life, seeing 12 of his 13 children pass before him.

Since some of his grandchildren had been left as young orphans, he ended up raising his grandson, the young Yehuda Aryeh Leib (1847-1905), who would eventually succeed his grandfather as the second Gerrer Rebbe while still a young man of age 22. The Sefas Emes, as he is known, became one of the most influential spiritual leaders of Polish Jewry. His brilliant five-part Chassidic homilies on the Torah that gave him his name, and his many volumes of commentary on the Talmud, have transformed him into one of the great Talmudic and Chassidic giants of the 19th century.

When he was still just a boy, he would often stay up late in the night studying Torah. At times, he stayed up almost the entire night immersed in Torah study with a learning partner.

And so it happened once, that at one such occasion, the Sefas Emes after staying up all night, fell asleep right before morning prayers and came late to the service. His grandfather, who raised him as his own child, noted the time his grandson had arrived to synagogue. After the prayers, the Gerer Rebbe, the Chidushei Harim, approached his grandson and rebuked him for sleeping in. He explained to him at length how the discipline to awake in the morning is crucial to human development; how allowing oneself to indulge in sleep numbs one’s spiritual growth and inhibits growth; how after sleeping a full night, a Jew ought to jump out of bed in the morning with passion and alacrity, with the joy of knowing that now he can approach G-d in prayer and study; how wasting one’s life in bed is a tragedy.

The Sefas Emes, who was a young boy at the time, kept quiet. He just listened to his grandfather rebuking him without offering the obvious excuse that he was up all night learning Torah. His study partner, who was up with him and knew what had happened, approached the young Yehuda Aryeh Leib and asked, "Why didn't you just tell your grandfather you were up all night studying?

The young Sefas Emes answered his friend: "To hear criticism from my saintly Zeide is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There was no way I was going to forfeit that privilege by offering justifications for my behavior!”

As proof of the truth of his position, the Sefas Emes quoted the story above, raising the obvious question. The messengers of the two tribes of Gad and Reuben allowed Moses to rebuke them even though they could have corrected him immediately. Why?

Because they knew that it was a zechus—a great merit, an awesome privilege—to hear criticism from Moses. To be challenged, chastised, reprimanded by a giant, is a rare opportunity. Even if you have a justification, why would you give up such an incredible opportunity to hear words of wisdom, to hear holy words, to get to listen to the perspectives and ideas coming from the mouth of Moses?!

Cherish Criticism

Many of us loath criticism—even when we know it might be correct. When we know we are in the right, we often go mad, our heart flooded with resentment to the accuser. We would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.

But this is a primitive approach. As the members of the tribes of Gad and Reuben—and the Sefas Emes—taught us, we ought to reverse our perspective. The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.

As one of the great masters (Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Schneerson of Lubavitch, 1859-1920) taught:[3] Cherish criticism, for that is what will raise you to true heights.

When Your Spouse Criticizes You

We often resent criticism and we attack the one who offers it—either verbally, or in our hearts. But as the above story teaches us, not only should you not run from criticism, you should cherish it. Especially when it is coming from a human being who has insight, depth, and virtue—even if you think they are in the wrong and you are in the right. Just listening to their words will make you wiser, deeper, and larger.

Each of us has blind spots, biases, insecurities, and defects. Even if I am right, it is vital to create space for another perspective. When a spouse learns to genuinely embrace his or her spouse's contrasting personality and their differing views, it allows us to travel to places we could never reach on our own.    

Why Is It So Hard?

Why is it hard for us? Why do so many of us jump at the first criticism we hear? Why do we implode or explode when someone criticizes us?

One reason might be innate trauma, which causes me to hear all criticism as delegitimization of my core value. When I feel deep down that I am worthless, then I hear everything in that context.

Lest you think the above insight comes only from modern psychology. It originates in the teachings of one of the great spiritual masters of Judaism, who lived 250 years ago. The way we discovered this teaching is a fascinating and tragic story.

Solomon Maimon (1753-1800) was born to a religious Lithuanian family in the middle of the 18th century, a tumultuous time for European Jewry, marked by the rise of the Enlightenment as well as the Chassidic movement. Young Solomon was recognized as a prodigy in Talmudic studies. His parents fell on hard times and had him engaged to two separate girls to take advantage of their dowries, leading to a bitter rivalry. At the age of 14 he was already a father and was making money by teaching Talmud. Yet he was a restless and brilliant soul—and searching for answers.

At the age of 16-17, he made a pilgrimage to the court of Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch (c. 1700-1772), the successor of the founder of the Chassidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov. In his autobiography, he ridicules the Maggid's adherents but confesses that the Maggid's ideas are "closer to correct ideas of religion and morals" than those he was taught in cheder.

At the age of 25, Maimon left his home area heading westward for Germany. An attempt to convert into Christianity in Hamburg failed due to an admitted lack of belief in Christian dogma. In Germany, he became acquainted with the father of Jewish Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn, who helped him settle in Berlin. In time he became a respected philosopher, and in 1790 he published the Essay on Transcendental Philosophy, in which he formulates his objections to one of the greatest philosophers of the time, Emmanuel Kant. Kant described him as “having an acumen for such deep investigation that very few men have.” He also went on to write a commentary on the Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides (1135-1204), after whom he had chosen his last name. In 1791 he published his Autobiography. A bitter and complex soul, he became an alcoholic and went in and out of depression. Shlomo Maimon died in 1800 at the age of 48 from depression and alcoholism.

In his fascinating autobiography, he quotes a teaching of the Maggid of Mezritch whose court he visited as a teenager, which he says he heard from a young adherent of the Chassidic movement. It is an extraordinary Chassidic insight—and it is equally fascinating that our source for it is from the writings of the Berlin brilliant and depressed Solomon Maimon!

Cherish Your Honor?

This teaching of the Maggid focuses on a Mishnah in the Ethics of the Fathers (which we study during this time of the year). The tenth Mishna in the Second Chapter contains a deceptively simple statement:

רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, יְהִי כְבוֹד חֲבֵרָךְ חָבִיב עָלֶיךָ כְּשֶׁלָּךְ.

“Rabbi Eliezer would say: The honor of your friend should be as precious to you as your own.”

Asked the Maggid: Should not a person strive to reach a state in which he is not so concerned with his own glory? What is more, asks the Maggid, the comparison seems wrong. For one may forgo on his or her own honor, but one may not forgo on their friend’s honor.

Here is the explanation of the Maggid—and I quote the words of Solomon Maimon:

 “It is obvious that there is no person who would derive pleasure from giving honor to himself; to do such a thing would be absurd. It would be similarly absurd to give too much value to the respect someone else accords him, since his own intrinsic worth will not grow from this in the slightest.

This is the intent of the Mishnah: “Your fellow’s honor (the honor that the other person accords you) should be as precious—as insignificant and meaningless—as your own honor (as the honor that you accord yourself).”[4]

If I presented a lecture and nobody applauded me, would I return home and give myself a standing ovation for five minutes? Would that add to my self-esteem? Just like conferring honor on yourself is ineffectual since we know exactly who we are, and our achievements won’t become any more substantial or significant by standing in the mirror and paying ourselves a compliment, so too for the compliments that someone else pays you. The honor that someone else treats you with should be as meaningless to you as the honor you confer upon yourself!

“These outstanding ideas astounded me,” writes Solomon Maimon the heretic. “And their clever interpretation, which served to support [their ideas], brought me to a state of great excitement.”

Don’t Be So Affected

The same is true of criticism. Compliments do not make you and criticism does not destroy you. Winston Churchill said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” When you have a solid core, you can listen gracefully to criticism.

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a person’s growth without destroying his roots. But if you don’t believe you have firm roots, then all criticism will kill you.

Humility

In addition to the recognition of your immutable self-worth, there is a second prerequisite to be able to appreciate criticism. I must always possess humility: the awareness that I am not there yet. There is so much more to learn, and so much more to grow into.

The next time your wife says: How could you do this? Before getting upset, go to the mirror, and say: G-d loves me. I am wholesome. No one can destroy me. And then you will come to appreciate and grow from the criticism.

You might even learn that your wife never meant to cut you down. She perhaps assumed that you are confident enough and is simply having a conversation with you. And just like the members of the tribe of Reuben and Gad you will look forward to her critique.


[1] Numberss 32:6-15

[2] Quoted in Sefer Likutei Basar Likutei

[3] Hayom Yom 12 Sivan

[4] It is fascinating that we have found a similar idea transcribed in the name of the Maggid by one of his disciples, Rabbi Aaron Shmuel HaKohen in his work Vetzevah Hakohen ch. 17.

Please leave your comment below!

  • L

    lazer -3 years ago

    Two interesting points.
    A, A story from Reb Shmelke. When he arrived at Nikelsburg he was invited to a large reception. He asked for a moment to be along in a side room. He stayed for longer than anticipated and someone stepped in to summon him. How astounded he was to hear Reb Shmelke stand by the wall and praise himself with the most flattering compliments. When he asked Reb Shmelke why he did it, Reb Shmelke explained that he wanted to familiarize himself with the platitudes he would hear in the large hall and he wanted it to sound as ridiculous coming from the mouths of others as it sounds from his own mouth.
    This amazing story lends credence that this was indeed a teaching from the Magid.
     
    B, just this morning I learned the Mamar Eileh Hadevarim 5663. In this essay, you explain that criticism can offer another perspective. This mamar goes much deeper. Rebuke from a tzadik can open and Chanel kochos you never knew you had. Kochos that can sustain you through the harshest of trials. It deepens our appreciation for why the Sefas Emes and Benei Reuven cherished the rebuke from a tzadik.
     
    Keep up the amazing work
    Lazer

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  • M

    malka -3 years ago

     
    I read with interest your article about criticism. It's quite an avoda to defang criticism and to hear it in a dispassionate, and ultimately productive way. 
     
    Your full-bodied explanation was a pleasure to read and has given me much to reflect upon - as I personally relate to the struggle ;-). 
     
    But something is bothering me about this exchange. True, Bnei Reuven and Gad could have explained their perspective sooner, but as I understand your article, it seems as if Moshe's response was reactionary (with faulty assumptions, to boot!). 
     
    Even mere mortals are expected to learn how to engage in reflective and empathic listening (active listening)...to recognize that often the words expressed do not reflect the speaker's intention. When something niggles at us, it behooves us to leave some space for the possibility that we are not "getting" what the person is really trying to say, even if their words sound pretty explicit! Instead of an immediate reaction, we should train ourselves to ask - in a soft and truly open-minded manner, "What do you mean by that?" In my experience, this empathic and humble approach "opens" the space (practically and symbolically) for the initial statement (or in this case, question) to be refined. 
     
    Moshe Rabeni is anav mikul adam. Could I be reading this exchange in the wrong key?

    Sincerely,
    Malkie 

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

    • Anonymous -3 years ago

      Thanks so much for your kind words and reflection.
       
      But actually, here it makes sense:
       
      Seeing what happened last time 40 years earlier, when the Meraglim returned, and Moshe allowed them to share their feelings, and it caused a catastrophe, this time around Moshe perhaps was determined to nip it in the bud immediately and root out any second crisis.

      Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Matos

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • July 16, 2020
  • |
  • 24 Tamuz 5780
  • |
  • 1441 views
  • Comment

Dedicated by Mehran Javaherian, in memory of Bashi ben Mashallah

Class Summary:

In this week’s Torah reading we come across the silence of the Children of Gad and Reuben in the face of harsh rebuke from Moses, comparing them to the spies who dissuaded the nation from entering Israel. Yet despite the fact that they were planning to assist the Jews in war, they remained silent throughout the rebuke, not defending themselves. We didn’t they speak up?

Why did the Sefas Emes remain quiet as his famous grandfather, the first Rebbe of Ger, rebuke him undeservedly?

These two stories, along with fascinating teaching recorded by the tragic Jewish philosopher and heretic Solomon Maimon which he heard in the court of the Maggid of Mezritch, teach us some important lessons about the beauty and importance of healthy criticism.

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.

But why is it hard for us? Why do so many of us jump at the first criticism we hear? Why do we implode or explode when someone criticizes us?

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