"If one person tells you that you are a donkey, you can laugh at them. If two people tell you that you are a donkey, give it some serious thought. If three people tell you that you are a donkey, go buy a saddle.
"The main difference between the two versions is that the modern form recognizes that not all feedback is valid and you must distinguish between insults, off-the-cuff comments, and useful advice. What are the criteria for determining if a comment is nasty criticism meant to hurt, banter, or a bit of serious criticism that is designed to be helpful and constructive? There are several useful criteria, including questions such as: (1) who says it, (2) in what context, (3) how often, and (4) how many people. The Talmudic quip is cute and serious at the same time, but not as nuanced as the version I heard in the 1970s. However, the bottom line is the same.
"What is that bottom line? That human nature is such that we mostly dismiss critical comments, often to our detriment. It is beyond difficult to hear things that don't fit our rigid self-image. If we see ourselves as intelligent and kind, being called a donkey will surely not be received well. It will bring anger, denial (very possibly justified), and rejection. The question becomes, when does what someone says merit serious listening and self-examination, and when is it something to dismiss out of hand?
"The nineteenth-century Musar movement, started by Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant (often called Rabbi Israel Salanter), was designed to help its followers work on their midot, or personal character traits. Disciples were trained to seek out opinions of teachers, colleagues, and friends to find ways to improve their character. It was unusual to be called a donkey, but disciples would very likely hear constructive suggestions on how levels of kindness, compassion, honesty, sincerity, and self-discipline could be raised. The recipients of such suggestions were trained to take them seriously. It was a mark of maturity, and even joy, to find new and better ways to improve personal character. All the better to serve God and other humans! But lacking that kind of intensive preparation, the average fallible human being is not ready to hear negative comments about his or her character.
"The value of this Talmudic aphorism is that it furthers the kind of personal growth training that the Musar movement tried to institute in the nineteenth century. The more you get used to the idea that constructive, well-meant suggestions are valuable, the more ready your heart and mind are to receive them. It is also helpful to have an aphorism and an image. The aphorism is provided by this statement, and the image of the donkey and saddle may quickly come to mind when the question of useful feedback arises. The most optimistic outcome of repeating this dictum and seeing the image is that when you hear constructive criticism, you will be more emotionally ready to receive it, give it serious evaluation, and integrate the information into your personality. This is easier said than done, but it's a step in the right direction.
"Once again the ancient Rabbis prove through their teachings, and through their selection of popular, universal sayings that their emotional intelligence was far ahead of their age. We twenty-first-century descendents would do well to take their advice to heart."