Rabbi Berzansky - Parshat Yitro
How was the great Moshe Rabbeinu, leader of Klal Yisroel and father of all the prophets, able to accept Yisro’s criticism? Nobody enjoys hearing his or her faults and weaknesses. Why wasn’t he embarrassed or personally offended by Yisro’s words? “Moshe, what you are doing is not good. You’re going to wear yourself out, along with the rest of the nation. Your responsibility is too great. You can’t do it alone!”
Moshe’s willingness to accept Yisro’s advice may be surprising, but it does not surpass Chazal’s expectations of every Jew. Chazal taught us to accept criticism and even to love it! The Rosh takes this a step further and obligates us to rejoice when hearing rebuke, just as a person rejoices when finding a treasure.
Perhaps with a bit of background, we too can reach such levels. Let us try to understand what Chazal is teaching us.
Society has convinced itself that flaws are a sign of inadequacy and failure. This has forced people to perform on a much higher level than they are really on. People must be perfect even before they have perfected themselves. In addition, one must continuously, consciously or subconsciously, cover up one’s faults and weaknesses in order to portray the image of “the perfect human being.”
For a person who was brought up in this worldview, criticism is not only counterproductive, it is also difficult to accept because it reveals what is supposed to be hidden.
It is true that we are supposed to aspire towards self-perfection, however, to say or assume that we have reached our perfection is far from the truth. The Chasam Sofer explains the words “Boreh nefashos rabos ve’chesronan” as “Hashem created everything with its deficiencies, shortcomings, and faults.”We, too, were born with our own set of them, and our job in this world is to try to rectify them. Such a task does not happen overnight, or over a few years, but is a lifelong goal.
When a person understands that self-perfection is only a goal and not a reality, he can appreciate criticism and even welcome it. He can view criticism as a helpful tool in his quest for self-perfection. Of course, it is far more pleasant when someone corrects us tactfully, but since our goal is self-perfection, we can appreciate the criticism, even if it is offered less than ideally.
Why is criticism a prerequisite for growth? Aside from the fact that we were not born knowing everything, we are also biased towards ourselves. We tend to view ourselves as “all-around good people,” with a thousand and one reasons and rationalizations to justify our actions. This blinds us from seeing the aspects of ourselves that we have not perfected and that still need addressing. Only an outsider can show us these points. In fact, many Torah giants like the Vilna Gaon and the Maharshal had “professional rebukers” who aided them in their quest for self-perfection.
This approach to criticism can help us understand how being censured can be compared to finding a treasure. Rebuke, when viewed in a fresh light, is vital direction along the road towards self-perfection. Criticism is priceless because without it one’s goal can be lost forever.
The following story illustrates this point: When the Sefas Emes was a young boy, he would study immediately after davening with his chavrusa until eleven in the morning. Afterward, he attended a private shiur by his Zeide, the Chiddushei Harim. One day he and his chavrusa lost track of the time and he arrived at eleven-thirty instead of eleven o’clock. As soon as he entered the room, the Chiddushei HaRim rebuked his grandson. “Leibel, what’s going to become of you? All you’re doing is wasting your time playing games with your friends.”
The Sefas Emes stood in absolute silence. Later, his chavrusa asked him why he did not explain that they had lost track of time because they were so engrossed in their learning. Leibel answered, “How often does a person get the opportunity to hear criticism from a Torah giant like my Zeide? To dismiss such rebuke is a golden opportunity lost.”
Now we can understand how Moshe accepted Yisro’s criticism and implemented it right away. In like fashion, our reaction to criticism depends on our outlook. Either we can feel hurt, embarrassed, and insulted, or we can feel grateful and fortunate for receiving direction in our quest for self-improvement and self-perfection.