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The Talmud tells this story:

Rabbi Elazar... met an extremely ugly person and said to him: “Worthless person, how ugly you are! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?” The man said to him: “I do not know, but you should go and say to the Craftsman Who made me: How ugly is the vessel you made! ..." ... He added later: "I forgive him, provided that he does not become accustomed to act that way.” [Taanit 20a-b]

The Maharsha adds: We expected the man to say: “I forgive you provided that you don't behave like that again!” Instead he said: “I forgive you provided that you do not become accustomed to act that way.” The word “accustomed” indicates that such behavior is sometimes acceptable. [Chidushei Agadot]

When is it acceptable?

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  • 3 questions. 1) Is being ugly a handicap? 2) Do we learn from random (non rabbinic) characters? 3) Is it possible he was just saying "I don't expect you to change your bad midda overnight, but please work on it"
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Feb 5 at 17:57
  • (1) Often perceived as such. (2) The Maharsha thinks we do. (3) The rabbi had already apologized, Feb 5 at 18:03
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    @shmosel -- I don't understand it: "The man did not stipulate, however, that R' Elazar should never again speak this way, for as our story conveys, there are times — for certain people and in rare cases — when a spiritual ascent comes about only through the initial breakdown of callousness that is brought about at a moment of despair." Feb 5 at 18:40
  • @MauriceMizrahi Is this an insight? A level of wisdom to be attained? An intuition prompted by Hashem? Skill? How is this developed?
    – user34203
    Feb 6 at 3:36

2 Answers 2

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In one of his talks (Likkutei Sichos 15:122ff, sec. 5 - Hebrew translation here), the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l explains that R. Elazar perceived the man as being not just ugly and empty (ריקה, as R. Elazar calls him) in his physical appearance, but in his spiritual state. He wasn't even recognizable as בריות בעלמא, having some worth simply by virtue of being a creation of G-d!

And so R. Elazar figured that the only way to get through to such a person is to "break" him verbally. (Earlier in the sicha the Rebbe draws a comparison with Avraham having to force some of his guests to bless G-d by handing them a large restaurant bill.)

And it worked, since the fellow promptly recognized G-d as "the Craftsman Who made me."

(In footnotes 23 and 23* there, then, the Rebbe further comments that (1) there are indeed rare cases where this kind of treatment is necessary, hence the expression that one shouldn't be accustomed to act this way rather than that one should never do so); and (2) since the fellow's immediate response was to speak of the Divine "Craftsman," then it emerges that R. Elazar had misjudged him as being more "ugly" and "empty" than he really was.)

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The text of the Maharsh"a reads with my translation:

דה"ק ובלבד שלא יהא עושה דבר המרגיל אותו לעשות כן

This is what he meant – so that he does not do something that will develop a habit of speaking in this way

דהיינו שלא יהא דעתו גסה שהוא מרגילו לעשות כן לספר בגנות בני אדם כמו שעשה ואמר כמה מכוער

which means that his mindset should not become coarse, accustomed to speaking ill of people as he did, saying how ugly he is.

I think the Maharsh”a has your question and answers it by saying that the person should never speak ill of others so that as a result he becomes coarsened.

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