Making Teshuvah with Our Fellow Congregants
Shabbat Shuvah 5768, September 15, 2007
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg of Temple Beth Shalom, Long Beach
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In rabbinical school I had the opportunity to study with an aged rabbi, David Aronson, a leading figure of the Conservative movement from Minneapolis who had retired in Los Angeles and taught at the University of Judaism. He was a fount of wisdom and experience. One of the stories I remember from him was a visit he made to a congregant during this season. The congregant was a wealthy member of the synagogue, but during a recent financial crisis the member had done nothing to help even though it was well within his means to do so. Rabbi Aronson had appealed to the members of the congregation for aid and support, but his words had not broken through to this member.
When Rabbi Aronson visited the man, he explained that he was coming to make Teshuvah since it was during the 10 days of repentance. The rabbi began by saying, “I have failed you, Mendel. I feel that as a rabbi my role is to inspire people to give tzedaka, and to give it generously especially in time of need. But I failed you as your rabbi, and I did not move you to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedaka. The man was quite disarmed with the words of Rabbi Aronson. Right there and then he gave a substantial gift to help the synagogue.
I mention this story because it demonstrates not only the rabbi’s effort to make Teshuvah, but the thoughtful way he did it in a difficult case. The other reason I mention this story is that it reminds us that one of the more important arenas of repairing relationships and making Teshuvah is within our congregation, with the people whom we share common community.
This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah-the Sabbath of Repentance, taking place in the middle of the Asseret Ymei Teshuvah-the 10 days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashannah and end with Yom Kippur. This is a particularly auspicious time to repair our most important relationships, with our family members, our work associates, our friends, and eventually our relationship with God.
But I want to focus on an obvious area where Teshuvah is very important and can have long and lasting impacts. How does one make Teshuvah with fellow congregants? How does one repair a relationship with a rabbi or a cantor?
One of the central metaphors of Judaism is the story of a leader guiding a troubled and anxious congregation through the wilderness. All congregations are imitations of the original story of Moses leading Bnai Yisrael through the Midbar (wilderness). So it is inevitable that conflict and ethical lapses will take place in a congregation. The challenge of this season is to face our relationships with people in our community and to seek healing, reconciliation, or an end to conflict.
One of the key aspects of the Mitzvah of Teshuvah is that each of us has to take responsibility for our role in a conflict or a troubled relationship. We often fail to do this because of what John Gottman, a world famous expert on marriage and relationships, teaches about human nature. We are guilty of ‘human attribution error,’ blaming the other for the problem. I’m Ok, you are defective.
The critical act of Teshuvah, as we see in the case of Rabbi Aronson, is identifying our part of the problem, taking responsibility for it, approaching the aggrieved party, renouncing one’s acts, and asking for forgiveness.
The key then is to overcome our tendency to only hold the other party accountable in a conflict or dispute. To help us identify what we may contribute toward a conflict in a community, I have assembled seven ‘averot’- sins we do that hurt others in our community. By identifying them we may be able to find the locus of our role in a conflict, own them, and be able to articulate to another we have done as the first step of repairing a relationship.
1. Blame: We find it easy to blame others in the congregation by projecting all the problems onto their behavior. In blaming others in a congregational dispute, we often misconstrue the motivations or intentions of the other. But in blaming others we fail to look seriously about how we contribute to the conflict.
2. Attack: Character assassination is the usual mode in synagogue disputes. In order to justify our position we may attack a person’s personality instead of the principle which a person holds to in expressing a different view.
3. Lashon Hara-Gossip: Attacking a person is usually done indirectly and amongst one’s friends. This is the transgression of Lashon Hara which receives a lot of attention from the sages as one of the most invidious problems of communal life. If we don’t like someone we may go to a friend or even the rabbi and rant about this person’s traits or behaviors. Such behavior is clearly unethical in Jewish law, because it spreads an impression of another that is usually distorted and hardens attitudes of both the listener and the speaker toward the person who is gossiped about.
4. Generalizing: This is when we transform a minor slight into a broader conviction of about the flaw of another. The classic case is when a congregant sees the rabbi in the store and the rabbi does not say hello. The congregant then assumes the rabbi does not like her. It might have been the case that the rabbi was preoccupied or did not recognize her, but we often we judge more harshly than necessary.
5. Keeping it Secret: “Nothing so paralyzes a social organism as secrets - especially those that are widely known yet never spoken.” (Kushner) A congregant does something hurtful to me. But I hold it within myself for months, even years. The resentment builds and becomes poisonous to the relationship and the wider community. Secret and not so secret grudges corrode communities and turn them into cauldrons of ill feeling. The Torah considers bearing a grudge to be a negative mitzvah. The prohibition on bearing a grudge comes just before “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19)
6. Anonymous Complaints: This often is directed at volunteers who take leadership roles or toward clergy. We get frustrated with the style or decisions of a person in authority. Instead of speaking directly to the person we may deliver criticism anonymously through a third party. The person in authority then never gets a clear idea of who is aggrieved or frustrated and does not have recourse to working out the issue directly with the complaining party.
7. Dropping Out: When people get frustrated they may choose to drop out. While in certain cases people realize that the congregation is not a good match for their needs, premature dropping out short circuits the process of repair that is possible in many circumstances.
Reflect on these common communal sins. This is the stuff of Teshuvah. If we have hurt or worsened a relationship with a fellow congregant by doing one of these behaviors, then we have an opportunity to do the mitzvah of Teshuvah. Even though the other congregant may have hurt us, we still have the obligation to do Teshuvah, to attempt to repair the relationship.
The aim here is not to become best friends with someone who was our adversary. Rather Teshuvah in a congregation is an effort to restore civility and decency to our relationship with a fellow congregant. We do this for the sake of community, for the sake of a higher purpose, and in reflection of God’s will.
The relationship between a rabbi and a congregant or between a cantor and a congregant also has all the features of congregant to congregant relationships, but has other issues too. People are very hesitant to speak openly to clergy. It is often the case that clergy are hesitant to speak with a member. But the true test of a healthy relationship in a congregation is the ability of congregants to speak privately with a rabbi or cantor about a complaint or a hurt. If I have one message to leave you today, it is that whether you are hurt by something I have done or whether you take responsibility for an act toward me as your rabbi, I hope that you will come speak to me in private. It does not have to only be during this season; you may approach me any time of year.
The spiritual quality and moral excellence of a community is based on the capacity for its members to make Teshuvah with each other. The congregation is more than a business; it is an assembly of people gathered for a common purpose, a holy enterprise. Teshuvah is the glue that holds a community together, and allows a community to heal from fractures or disputes. I certainly hope that by addressing the issue of Teshuvah in the synagogue early in my rabbinate with you, that all of you will take this to heart and know that Teshuvah is possible and a necessary part of the unfolding story of a community as we make our way through the wilderness.
Many of the things I have spoken of today are very hard to do. They also may fail because of hardened hearts and stubbornness or our own denial and evasions. Yet this is the most important Mitzvah of the season. I am also well aware that situations are complex and that more questions may be raised by my teaching when thinking of concrete situations. Please feel free to write to or approach me to discuss a specific situation. I hope you will share this also with your friends in the congregation to encourage the fulfillment of the mitzvah of Teshuvah among all our members.
Rabbi Larry Kushner writes in a short and brilliant essay about the nature of life in a congregation:
“The members of the congregation must nurture one another because they need one another. They simply cannot do it alone. Hermits and monasteries are noticeably absent from Jewish history; we are a hopelessly communal people. When the wilderness tabernacle is completed, near the end of the Book of Exodus, we are told, "And it came to pass that the tabernacle was 'one'" (Exodus 36:13).
Commenting on this curious expression, Rabbi Mordecai Yosef of Izbica (d. 1854) observes: In the building of the tabernacle, all Israel were joined in their hearts; no one felt superior to his fellow. At first, each skilled individual did his own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one that his work was extraordinary. Afterwards, once they saw how their several contributions to the "service" of the tabernacle were integrated - all the boards, the sockets, the curtains and the loops fit together as if one person had done it all, then they realized how each one of them had depended on the other. Then they understood how what all they had accomplished was not by virtue of their own skill alone but that the Holy One had guided the hands of everyone who had worked on the tabernacle. They had only later merely joined in completing its master building plan - so that "it came to pass that the tabernacle was one". (Exodus 36.13). Moreover, the one who made the Holy Ark itself was unable to feel superior to the one who had only made the courtyard tent pegs.
May we be worthy of this vision of community. Shabbat Shalom and Shannah Tovah.