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In a shiur I heard that the Vilna Gaon begged the Dubno Maggid to give him mussar (rebuke) after repeatedly declining the Maggid responded that

It is not so difficult to be a Gaon, cloistered in your study, learning torah day and night. But try to go out among the people. See if you will then still remain a Gaon.

The Gaon's response was to reis kriah (tear his clothing in mourning) but in practical terms to ignore the rebuke and continue with his practice of being disengaged from most communal matters.

I'm looking for the source of this story and any corroborative evidence that it took place.

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This source says the Gra did go into exile because of that. – b a Dec 21 '12 at 21:26
@ba The Gaon went into exile when he was in his twenties, when he was not yet a major figure. That doesn't really fit with the entire premise of the story. In fact, one of the reasons why I personally suspect that the story is deeply unreliable is precisely because of the fact that the Gaon had gone into exile, and that he was always deeply involved in communal affairs. The image of the Gaon as a cloistered hermit is an exaggeration of reality. – LazerA Dec 23 '12 at 1:32
@LazerA Well, I did hear once that whenever he went out "into the real world" he would read the first few chapters of Mesilas Yesharim that deal with zehirus. But I don't have a source for that story. – b a Dec 23 '12 at 2:03

The story is a well-known piece of Jewish folklore, and it is hard to know if the story is true at all, and if it is, how much it may have changed over the generations.

The story can be found in the sefer Michtavei Chofetz Chaim (p.262) at the beginning of an essay written in honor the shloshim of the Chofetz Chaim. It was originally published in the periodical Baderech. The author uses the pseudonym מחר הלוי.

The following is the version of the story printed there:

על הגר"א מוולנא יסופר, כי הוא פנה פעם למוכיח-בשער ידוע בימיו: הטף לי דברי מוסר! המוכיח הזדעזע: האם הטף אטיף דברי תוכחה להגאון מוולנא?! אני גוזר עליך שתעשה את זה - צוה הגר"א. ופתח המוכיח ואמר דברים אלה: הוי, אליהו, אליהו, עובד אתה את בורא-העולם בהיקף מוגבל, בסתר חדרך הצר ובד' אמות שלך, - צא נא לאויר העולם, לשוק החיים והמעשה, ועמוד שם בנסיונות יום יום, ועבוד שם את האלקים מתוך כשלונות היצר הרע ומלכודותיו על כל צעד ושעל... התחיל הגר"א בוכה ואומר: להיות עושה נפלאות ומהלך על חבל נטוי על פני ים זועף - אני ירא

Informal translation:

It is told of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah of Vilna), that he once turned to a mochiach (literally, "admonisher", referring to a rabbi who would give public speeches admonishing the people) who was well-known in his day and said, "Tell me some words of mussar (moral admonishment)!" The mochiach was shocked, "Shall I give mussar to the Gaon of Vilna?!" "I decree upon you that you do this!", commanded the Vilna Gaon. The mochiach began and spoke these words, "Woe, Elijah, Elijah! You serve the Creator in a very limited manner, hidden in your room and within your own four cubits. Go out into the world, into the public arena of life and action, and withstand the challenges of daily life, and there serve God amidst the setbacks and traps of the evil inclination at every step... The Vilna Gaon began to cry and said, "To do wonders and walk on a rope stretched out over an angry sea - I am afraid!"

As you can see, while not exactly the same in every detail (esp. in the fact that the baal mussar is not identified), this is clearly the same basic story. Personally, I suspect the story is either entirely fictional, or has changed substantially from its original form.

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Thank you for remembering to add a translation! Do you have a date, by any chance, on the year it was first published (TTBOYK)? – Double AA Dec 23 '12 at 1:17
Well, according to the sefer, the essay was printed for the shloshim of the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim was niftar in 1933 (Sep. 15, 1933 according to Wikipedia), so this would have been first published about a month later. – LazerA Dec 23 '12 at 1:24

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