I write this message shortly after hearing the news that Senator John McCain has died. The outpouring of grief, the tributes from colleagues on both sides of the political spectrum and world leaders all attest to the fact that Senator McCain was a man of principle who, despite his fervent and often controversial statements and positions, had the ability to disagree – sometimes fervently – with his opponents, while retaining the respect and friendship of most of the people with whom he came in contact. While we would hope that his example would be the norm, not the exception in our nation’s capital, his ability to cross the sectarian, ideological and political divides that are plaguing our national discourse was unique. His strength of character and willingness to speak his truth to power while separating politics from personality can serve as a model for our personal and professional relationships as we enter into this third week of Elul.
This time of Cheshbon Ha-nefesh (taking an inventory of our souls) during the month of Elul gives us an opportunity to examine the central relationships in our lives. Almost everything we do involves other people. We have different kinds of relationships: personal, professional, romantic and platonic. And yet, all our dealings with others have the potential for holiness. The Torah teaches that every person is created in the image of God. How we treat others must reflect this awareness. In our modern, technology filled, and cloistered worlds, all too often, relationships that are challenged by opposing world views can become disposable when conflicting values and belief systems emerge. It is easy to cut off those who make us uncomfortable – sometimes with the click of a mouse. As a result, we are rapidly losing the ability to disagree – and to move beyond our disagreements. This is a dangerous trend which poses a severe challenge to our society and the institutions upon which it is built.
The month of Elul is all about asking for and receiving forgiveness. The Mishnah teaches that on Yom Kippur the sins we have committed against God will be forgiven if we are truly repentant. The sins we commit against others, however, cannot be forgiven unless and until we have asked those whom we have wronged to forgive us. In many ways, this is one of the most difficult aspects of Cheshbon Ha-nefesh. It means that we have to take risks by reaching out to others. We may encounter resistance, anger, or resentment. Sometimes it is impossible to reach out – and yet, it is our duty to do all that we can to assess whether reconciliation is possible. If there is a slightest hope – then we need to try – even if we fail. In addition, we are taught that when others come to us asking for our forgiveness, we should do everything in our power to grant their requests.
The following questions are designed to make us think about the current status of the many different relationships in our lives. Again, this is by no means a complete list. Hopefully it will provide you with a starting point for improving the relationships in your lives.
1. Are there any relationships in my life that are damaged? Have I done all that I could to repair them?
2. Are there people I have wronged that I need to ask to forgive me?
3. Will I be able to forgive those who come to me to ask for my forgiveness?
4. Have I taken part in any business or personal transactions this past year that were against my religious, moral or ethical principles?
5. Have I taken time recently to let the most important people in my life know how much I care about them?
6. Are there people who feel that I have wronged them – even if I don’t think that I have? Have I reached out to them to try and come to an understanding?
7. Have I shut out the pain of others in other parts of the world? In my country? My City? My congregation? My neighborhood? My family?
Again, I welcome your comments and suggestions for additional questions and formats that we can use. If answering them causes you to want to speak to one of the Temple clergy, Rabbis Hyatt and Baskin, Cantor Sacks and I would welcome the opportunity. These materials will also be available in hard copy at the Temple Office. They also will be posted on my blog and linked to both the Temple website and Facebook page. If you know of anyone else who might want to receive these mailings – whether or not they are members of the congregation - please contact the Temple office and we will be happy to send them out.
L’shanah Tovah U’metukah – may you have a good and sweet new year,
Rabbi Joseph R. Black