In the last few weeks I have been asked the same question by several KT members. It goes something like this: "I know what I need to do if I have caused someone harm, but what does Judaism have to say about someone who has caused me harm?" In other words, as my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe explains it, "How do I get my friend (read: neighbor, parent, child, teacher, student, co-worker, etc.) on the teshuva train?"
If there was a rabbinic FAQ for the month of Elul, I would list this question first. How do we forgive someone who has not even acknowledged that they hurt us, never mind apologized and committed to not repeat the action?
As it turns out, Judaism does have a lot to say about this topic. The first mention of Tochecha comes directly from Torah itself. We will actually read it aloud on Yom Kippur afternoon in The Holiness Code.
Leviticus 19:17 reads:
לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃
You are not to hate your fellow in your heart, you should absolutely rebuke your friend, but not in a way that causes you to miss the mark.
In other words, when someone causes harm, you should (must?!) give them Tochecha. You are obligated to give them feedback, lest you harbor resentment. But you also must not do so in a way that causes more harm.
This is easier said than done. I have been on the giving and receiving end of a meaningful amount of Tochecha this week. And I have wept in almost every conversation. Feedback is as difficult to give as it is to receive. It is a profoundly vulnerable experience to have someone, especially someone I love, reflect back to me my own mistakes. It burned my eyes to look in the mirror and see myself. It was equally tender to try to coax the words to share with someone I love the ways in which they had missed the mark. I felt a desperate longing to not want to cause them further shame.
Tochecha is such an important, delicate, spiritual practice. Even when we get it right, it's hard. There is some wisdom in this week's Torah reading that can support those of us who need to receive feedback and those of us who need to offer it.
This week we read Parashat Ki Tavo, which comes near the very end of the book of Deuteronomy. It begins with a series of blessings and rewards for your spiritual diligence. "Blessed be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed are your comings and your goings..."
But then come the curses, consequences for our spiritual negligence. The "curses" will be read tomorrow morning in the extra long fifth aliyah. The 55 verses (Deut. 28:15-69) are known as the Tochecha, verses of rebuke and warning.
Setting aside the theology for a moment, I am interested in the choreography of this moment. The calendar I follow says, "Chant this section in a somewhat subdued voice to symbolically minimize the trepidation that the congregation experiences upon hearing the message of these verses." We are meant to receive these words almost in a whisper, lest the tone scare us.
The calendar continues, "However, for verses 7-14, voicing the promise of God's protection and reward, chant as usual." Despite the anachronistic order of these instructions, verses 7-14 are actually read first.
This one aliyah offers us two important teachings to support us in the practice of Tochecha. First, it is important to value and protect the relationship despite the need for Tochecha. Just as God begins by sharing words of blessing and protection, so too should we. And second, pay attention to the tone of your voice and the quality of care that it expresses. Allow the warmth and love you feel for this person to be received as much as the words themselves. From my own experience, the spiritual challenge of Tochecha is that it needs to come from a place of love. (For more Torah about Tochecha, here is a sermon I gave several years ago on Yom Kippur.)
In this season, may we be quick to forgive and caring in our sharing of rebuke. May blessings rain down upon each of us, in the city and in the field, upon the fruits of our labor and the work of our hands. And may we all feel these blessings of protection as we wade into this vulnerable time.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.