The Gemara in Masekhet Eiruvin (53b) cites the comment of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya that there were three times when he was “defeated” in the sense of being unable to defend himself against criticism. On these three occasions, somebody pointed out something wrong in his conduct, and he had no response. On one occasion, Rabbi Yehoshua told, the person who criticized him was a young girl; on another it was a young boy; and on another it was a woman who had hosted him for several days. We may reasonably assume that this woman was an innkeeper, or somebody from a distant community who hosted Rabbi Yehoshua when he traveled.
On one level, this account teaches us of the need to humbly accept criticism from anybody and from anywhere. Rabbi Yehoshua draws our attention to the fact that although he consistently held his own while debating complex, intricate halakhic topics in the study hall with the leading scholars of his time, young children and a simple innkeeper succeeded in putting him in his place. Every person we meet, young or old, has something for us to learn from, and we must be openminded and humble enough to accept guidance and even uncomfortable criticism from anybody who offers it.
However, there might also be another lesson to learn from Rabbi Yehoshua’s stories. It is perhaps no coincidence that all three of these people who succeeded in “defeating” him were people who were unaware of his stature of greatness. Two were young children, and the third was, presumably, a woman from a distant community. Rabbi Yehoshua’s peers, as well as those who lived in his surroundings and within his sphere of influence, and who thus acknowledged his stature as a towering Torah sage, would not likely have pointed out his mistakes. If they saw something he did that appeared wrong, they would have either given him the benefit of the doubt and figured that they misunderstood, or, out of respect for the rabbi, simply remained silent. The three people who criticized him did so precisely because they did not recognize his greatness and therefore did not treat him with such reverence that they shied away from offering criticism.
Rabbi Yehoshua thus teaches that respect often gets in the way of recognizing our faults and failings. As we embark upon the process of introspection and self-assessment, in search for the areas of our conduct that require improvement, we must view ourselves without the bias of reverence. We need to study our conduct and our beings the way those young, free-spirited children evaluated Rabbi Yehoshua – with simple honesty, without preconceived notions or perceptions of stature. Certainly, we need to view ourselves with a certain basic level of self-respect, or else we would not even care to embark on the process of self-improvement. At the same time, however, we cannot approach this process from a perspective of self-reverence, holding ourselves in high esteem such that we intuitively give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. We need to study ourselves with sheer objectivity, honestly trying to determine where we act properly and where we act wrongly. It is only with this kind of youthful brazenness towards ourselves that we can hope to identify our shortcomings and work to correct them.