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Taking Things Personally

By: Rav Yonny Sack

One of the most difficult aspects of our inter-personal relationships is how to correctly and constructively deal with the negative critical remarks, hurtful comments, reprimands and the like from others. It could come from a  parent, boss, friend or stranger in the street, some packing more hurt than others, but whomever the source, being 'told off' can cause a lot of anguish.  In this week's parasha, Tazria-Metzora we find a fascinating insight that gives us direction in this area.

The parasha speaks of a person with tzaraat, a spiritual illness which comes upon a person as a result of having done various sins, the most famous of which is lashon hara - evil gossip. The nega - blemish/illness - appeared on the walls of the person's house, on their clothing and finally on the person's own skin in the form of blemishes. The person with the nega would have to come to the Cohen for an inspection to determine if indeed this was the impure spiritual illness or not and how to go about fixing the problem.

An amazing question is asked: If the Cohen himself saw these blemishes on his own skin, would he be able to diagnose himself? The answer is no. He would have to go to another Cohen for inspection and diagnoses. Why? Surely his expert eye should be able to see accurately, whether he is looking at others or himself? But of course, the answer is no. No one, not even the Cohen, or even a Cohen Gadol [1], the High priest himself, is free from  personal bias. The Mishna thus emphatically states:

 "Kol HaNegaim adam roeh chutz minegaii atzmo - A person sees all the blemishes, except for his own"[2].

Many important rules of self discipline derive from this principle. The Ramchal in his "Path for the Just" writes that "Kol Kula Tzricha Bedika - Every leniency requires checking" - meaning that one's desires for comfort and laziness lead to rationalizations of why the easy path of less resistance must be the true path. Of course, the opposite is often the truth, but seeing the truth with personal bias colored glasses has never been easy.  An additional outgrowth of this idea is in the Mishna in Avot which teaches that a Chaver Tov- a Good Friend is one of the most important factors in one's life [3]. What is a "good friend"? One who gives you courage, confidence and a validation for whatever you do? Quite the contrary - the commentaries[4] explain that a good friend is one who rebukes you, telling you off when you are acting improperly[5]!  A friend who is too accepting, too afraid to wake you up when you are sleepily following a destructive path, is not a good friend.

For this reason, many of the great Torah sages ensured that they had someone who would rebuke them. The Vilna Gaon had the Dubna Magid rebuke him, the first Gerrer Rebbe moved to Pshischa to learn by Rav Simcha Bunim and then the Kotzcha Rebbe and said he particularly benefited from the intensive piercing rebuke that he received there. The Gemara [6] tells of Rabbi Akiva's love of the rebuke that he got and quotes the pasuk in proverbs 9:8:"Do not rebuke the mocker, lest he hate you; rebuke the wise person and he will love you". The wise person embraces the reproach knowing that without it he would remain in the hands of his evil inclination.

In the Sefer Shaarei Kedusha , Rav Chaim Vital (16th C) writes that if we only knew how good it was for us to be chastised and even insulted, we would go looking for people to do it to us!

But alas, what does this mean for those of us who live in a generation where there are few people about whom one can say they truly love a good word of criticism? Most of us are so fragile, either walking around with our big ego's and tiny self esteems or fragile ego and tiny self esteem that the slightest personal remark leaves us negatively processing the comment over and over in our heads and hearts for hours. This creates a serious problem on both ends - the rebuker and the rebukee.  Firstly, people with a fragile self worth can often take out their insecurities on others with hurtful comments. These comments, criticisms, words of rebuke, etc. will most often be an expression of the person's own hurt and faults than anything to do with the one they are actually rebuking. Someone who is hurt often ends up hurting.  A person who is stressed, tired and hurt after a tough day of altercations with others may come home and release their pain by inflicting it on members of their family. How many times have you said a hurtful comment to someone you love only to realize later (or at the time) that they were actually nothing but the innocent targets of your own bad mood.  The rebuke we hear today can be so tainted by personal insecurity on behalf of the rebuker that we must be far more careful in how we filter its message.  As far as the rebukee goes - the one who is insulted sets up a fortress of protective and defense measures to deal with the unwanted feelings of inadequacy which come with criticism. So even if there was truth to the rebuker's comment, they are too fragile to face it head on.

So what are we to do? Perhaps the answer lies hidden within the problem itself. We must learn to derive our self worth from our intrinsic value as G-d's purposeful creations, unique and special in the eyes of the Creator of the universe Himself, created in His image and essentially sourced in His infinite Light. What other people think in truth can have no effect whatsoever on our true self-worth. When we let comments make us feel inadequate and worthless, we are giving the keys to our self-worth over to the hands of others. Leave your self-worth where it belongs, flowing from the untouchable pure G-dly soul which lies at your very essence. Even what we have done or do wrong does not take away from our essential self-worth, for our intrinsic worth transcends even our choices. Our Neshama is like a beam of light in a room, you can throw black paint on the beam of light but you simply cannot color it [7]. I can always choose to align myself back with my inner goodness, no matter how far the 'lower me' may stray.

With this unwavering strength of self identity, together with a genuine desire to always be growing, we can learn to embrace the guidance of others, no matter how piercingly unearthing it may be. 

As far as dealing with the rebuker's issues, I must learn to treat the criticisms as a gift that is wrapped. The wrappings are the exaggerations, the untruths, caused by the personal fragility of the one giving the criticism [8]. Immediately taking the whole package personally is a sure path to emotional hurt or entry into a defensive verbal assault against your 'attacker'. Rather, I must unwrap the shell, discard it and embrace the gift of truth that lies within, however minute it may be. Perhaps after unwrapping there might be no truth at all, I must just ensure I realize this gift is coming wrapped with a whole lot of personal issues and they have nothing to do with me at all, and that which does have to do with me requires my full attention.

There is of course much more to learn about this subject. May this act as an appetizer, awakening our hunger to learn more about this very important topic.

Have a beautiful, tranquil Shabbos.


[1] See Rav Naiman's Darkei Mussar quoted in Lekach Tov on this week's parasha, pg 109

[2] Negaim 2:5

[3] The Mishna teaches of the 5 students of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai who were asked by their rebbe to go out and find "which is the straight path that a person should cling to" and one of the 5 comes back and says " A good friend".  Avot 2:9

[4] Bartenura

[5] Of course there is more to a good friend that their reproach, but telling us that a good friend is one who is loving, kind, trustworthy and honest is obvious. The mishna and its commentaries are coming to teach us a chidush - a novel idea.

[6] Erchin 16b quoted in Lekach Tov, pg 109 Vayikra.

[7] A Moshal I heard from Rav Avraham Brussel, Shlit"a.

[8] I heard this moshal and advice from Dr. Dovid Leiberman in an incredible shiur called "dealing with difficult people" available online at Very much worth it!


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