Harsh Words Still Hurt

Recently our younger son Ben celebrated his 35th birthday. I am thrilled that he is at a very good place in life with a wonderful wife, two beautiful children and a fulfilling career.

Ben is my youngest child, and I was my father’s. I rejoice that I have lived to see my son celebrate his 35th birthday, and I don’t want to stop there. But my father died when I was 24.

He never saw me become a rabbi, and he never met Vickie nor, of course, our children and grandchildren.

I am grateful, though that my father saw me conduct one service and deliver one sermon the year before he died. It was in the summer after my first year in rabbinical school, and I was asked to fill in for vacationing Rabbi Charles Akiva Annes, of blessed memory, in my home congregation, Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, NJ.

My dad was already very sick, but he arranged for special treatment including a blood transfusion that day just so that he could be there. It was a Herculean effort on his part, and I will always treasure the memory of that night.

The service went well, and my father was jubilant. When a friend asked him how he felt,  his reply still reverberates in my heart: “With medicine like that, how can I not feel wonderful?”

Later he shared with my mother, “Now I can die in peace because I know my son has the talent to succeed in the career he has chosen. What I worry about is how will he deal with the criticism both warranted and unwarranted that a rabbi must endure.”

Dad, you were right to worry!

I have learned so much over the years from constructive criticism that I have received from teachers, friends and even casual observers.

But to this day, unthinking, harsh personal comments cut into my soul like a sharp knife.

The fact that I have learned that such attacks “come with the territory” and are the “price of doing business” a rabbi pays for putting him or herself out there in a public or semi public way does not diminish the pain.

On a trip to Israel during the intifada our small group met Israel’s former Prime Minister and later President, the late Shimon Peres. After his talk to us, I asked him how he deals with the vicious criticism people have hurled at him during his long career.

He replied, “If I believe that what I am doing is right, it does not bother me.”

I wish I had his fortitude.

It is nearly fifty years since I began to prepare to become a rabbi. I am still working on dealing with gratuitous criticism. To be honest, I still have a long way to go.

12 thoughts on “Harsh Words Still Hurt

  1. Rabbi, I remember those harsh words… but I also remember your inspirational sermons and scholarly classes that you initiated 30 years ago. I am CONSTANTLY reminded of your earnest dedication … caring and compassion. I will always be thankful to have had you in my life !!! … To have had you as my teacher. Sending love….


      1. I couldn’t get there…. I heard it was a lovely tribute !! Sending love to you and of course to Vickie and the grown-up ” kids “. btw.. I’ve written a prayer (words and music) , inspired by some of YOUR words which our Cantor is going to record for me ! Tadaaa! soooo, Thank YOU !!!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. We all struggle with this. It’s part of the agreement we made to be here in this school called Life.if we remember that we are all just waves in the ocean and part of the ocean itself ….then we can accept all that comes to us without judging it. I am working on accepting my pain . It is a difficult thing… I know. Much love .

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As an Executive Recruiter giving feedback to candidates from clients and vice versa has always been the most difficult part of my job. Sometimes there is a fine line between being helpful, critical or gratuitous. Candidates and clients learn from experiences and I am expected to deliver information. I constantly strive to communicate clearly what may be useful even if it may be hurtful. Although, I try to use my words carefully for the constructive benefit of my candidate and not be harsh. However, this is done through “my eyes” and certainly subject to my interpretation. I have years of experience striving to “soften the blow”. Harsh words may be spoken by individuals without the skill to communicate and express opinions and ideas in a more effective and constructive way. I am certain you frequently respond to individuals on a daily basis like this but listen and treat them with respect. It is your nature and your skill as a confident experienced Rabbi that I am sure often turns these experiences in to a teaching moment.


  4. I know it’s been a long time, but I recall, I’ve seen you disappointed, sad on occasion, of course happy &’pleased, but never angry. I suggest that where there is criticism you “First seek to understand and only then, to be understood” (Steven Covey). You have great insight Steve. Yes, it may hurt, but you learn from every experience. If we could somehow eliminate the hurtful, would we learn as much?


  5. David, with respect your comment sounds like, “Blaming the victim.” As I make clear in my essay, I welcome constructive criticism and have long endeavored to “understand” the lesson however nastily it is delivered.
    But that is a far cry, Dave, from excusing the nastiness.
    And yes, I think we learn more from critiques that are not delivered in a hurtful manner.
    One other thought: I am not a disciple of Stephen Covey, so I do not know if he is positing “Seek to understand rather than be understood,” as his original thought. I hope not. It comes from a very famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.


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