When the Gerrer Rebbe, the Sfat Emet was a boy, he was looked after by his grandfather, the great Chiddushei Harim, the first Gerrer Rebbe. On one occasion, the Sfat Emet stayed awake for most of the night learning Torah until he fell asleep in the early morning. He awoke after a short time to find himself a few minutes late for the class that the Chiddushei Harim taught. When the Chiddushei Harim saw that he arrived late he was unaware that his grandson had been awake for most of the night, and strongly rebuked him, presuming that his tardiness was the result of an element of laziness. Instead of defending himself, the Sfat Emet listened quietly to the scolding he received. His friend later asked him why he did not respond to the Chiddushei Harim's criticism, and thereby spare himself of the rebuke.(1) The Sfat Emet replied, saying, "would I waste the opportunity of being rebuked by my grandfather!" He based this line of thinking on an incident in the Torah Portion of Mattot.(2)
The tribes of Gad and Reuben approached Moses, asking that he allow them to remain on the other side of the Jordan where there was sufficient land for them to farm their animals. Moses replied with a strong rebuke - his main point of criticism was that by not entering the land of Israel they would be abandoning their brethren in the upcoming conquest. In a lengthy passage, Moses ominously reminds them of the incident of the spies and its terrible consequences. In reply to Moshe's criticisms, they said that they would join the rest of the nation in conquering the land. The Sfat Emet pointed out that in truth, they had intended to join the conquest right from the beginning but Moses did not understand this from their request and consequently rebuked them for being unwilling to join their brethren in conquering the land. If so, why did they not interrupt him right at the beginning of his condemnation instead of having to endure such a strong rebuke? The Sfat Emet explained that they wanted to hear the word of rebuke from a great man, and were therefore happy to listen to his criticisms even though they could easily refute them early on. So too, although he could have stemmed the rebuke of his grandfather by justifying his tardiness, he preferred to hear the rebuke of a tzaddik (righteous man).(3)
What was the great quality of being rebuked by a great man that caused the tribes of Gad and Reuben to bear such stinging rebuke? The Gemara in Taanit tells us that the curses with which the Prophet, Achiya HaShiloni cursed the Jewish people are greater than the blessings with which Bilaam blessed them.(4) The Gemara bases this idea on a verse in Proverbs: "The blows of a beloved one are trustworthy, and the kisses of an enemy are damaging." (5) The commentaries explain that the 'blows' delivered by one's beloved here refer to words of rebuke. The rebuke of someone who genuinely cares about his friend is of great benefit because it is aimed at helping him improve himself. This is a great kindness because it helps one improve his spiritual standing. When the tribes of Gad and Reuben heard Moses rebuke them, they knew that he was doing so from the purest of motives and only had their best interests in mind. Thus, even though they could defend themselves, it was more worthwhile to listen to his words and try to somehow grow from them.
Thus far, we have seen how the rebuke of a tzaddik is of great value, however it seems that even the rebuke of a less righteous person can be of considerable benefit. Moreover, even rebuke that is given in the wrong way, can still nonetheless help someone tremendously. The Sefer HaChinuch writes that the prohibition to take revenge is based on the concept that whatever happens to a person is directed by God. Even if someone acted towards a person in a negative fashion, it is nevertheless fruitless to bear a grudge or take revenge because the pain caused would not have occurred had God so desired.(6) Thus, when a person is rebuked in what he perceives to be a hurtful way, it is highly commendable that he ignore the failings of the rebuker and focus on what he actually said and accept the rebuke. There is often an element of truth in the rebuke proving that this rebuke was sent from God as a means of communicating that he should strive to change his ways.
King Solomon makes a similar point in Proverbs: "Hear advice and accept rebuke so that you will become wise in your latter days."(7) It is interesting to note that with regard to advice, we are told to 'hear', whereas in relation to rebuke we should 'accept it'. Hearing implies an element of contemplation and thought(8) - when a person is given advice he should think about it before he acts upon it. In contrast when one is rebuked he should accept it without analyzing the validity of the rebuke - rather he should view it as a message from God to improve himself and act accordingly. Rav Moshe Feinstein excelled in his reaction towards incorrect rebuke. On one occasion, he answered the phone only to be met with a barrage of criticism from someone who was incensed at one of his rulings. He patiently listened to the tirade until it ended and did not even try to defend himself. A shocked student asked him why he did not respond to such an inappropriate rebuke. He answered that he so rarely receives any rebuke that he was grateful for the opportunity to hear such strong words - and even though in this specific area the rebuke was unfounded, there must be some other area where he could improve himself and he should use the rebuke to improve in that area!(9)
On another occasion Rav Feinstein was rebuked for a perceived transgression. He answered the rebuke in a ruling that is found in Igrot Moshe.(10) He begins saying: I was very happy that your honor was so zealous in fulfilling the mitzvah of rebuke according to his understanding, and God forbid, that I should be upset at this… bli neder I will no longer travel in a car during the time of candle lighting(11) even though there is absolutely no prohibition in it, and there is not even maarit ayin."(12) After completely refuting the arguments of the rebuker he ends, saying, "from his beloved who blesses him with the merit of the mitzvah of rebuke that he did for the honor of God and for the honor of the Holy Shabbat..."
It is understandable that most people are not on the level of Rav Feinstein and do not enjoy being rebuked - it is unpleasant be told that one has a character flaw or acted in an improper fashion. However, if a person can move past the feelings of pain he experiences and tries to learn from the rebuke then he can transform it into a tremendous tool for growth and can use it to be a better servant of God.
1. One may wonder how the Chiddushei Harim could rebuke his grandson in front of other people - the Rambam explains that there are occasions when it is permissible to rebuke people in public, his proof being that the Nevi'im consistently rebuked individuals in public.
2. Mattos, Ch. 32.
3. Marbitsei Torah M'Olam Hachassidus, quoted in Tallelei Oros, Bamibar, 2nd Chelek, p.281.
4. Taanis, 20a.
5. Mishlei, 27.
6. Sefer HaChinuch Mitzva 241.
7. Mishlei, 19:20.
8. See the commentaries at the beginning of Parshat Yitro who explain Yitro's hearing in this vein.
9. Heard from a talmid chacham in the name of a witness to the incident.
10. This is a compilation of Rav Feinstein's response. This responsum was in Orach Chaim 1st Chelek, Simun 96.
11. See there for details of the exact rebuke and how Rav Moshe replied.
12. Maarit ayin is a category of prohibition whereby a person is performing a permissible act but that an onlooker could easily construe it as forbidden with damaging consequences.