Dear TEE Community,

Thursday night begins Elul, the Jewish month leading up to the High Holidays. Traditionally, Elul is a time to engage in cheshbon hanefesh, an “accounting of the soul,” reflecting on those qualities within ourselves we wish to either strengthen or reduce. Part of this accounting is also a consideration of our relationships with others.

Usually, there is a focus on teshurvah (“return”), apologizing and making amends to those we have harmed. There is, however, an equally important counterpart to teshuvah called tochachah, a word meaning “correct” or “reprove.” If we feel that someone has hurt us, it is our responsibility to let them know. Judaism requires many things of us, but it does not expect us to become mind readers. If we are upset with someone we cannot expect them to be aware of what is bothering us unless we tell them.

The centrality of tochachah is apparent in the fact that it is mentioned in what many would consider the most important passage in the Torah. Leviticus 19:17-18 reads:

Do not hate a member of your community in your heart–reprove your companion so that you do not incur guilt [by acting badly toward them]. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against one of your people so that you may love your neighbor as yourself.

Tochachah benefits both parties in a dispute or misunderstanding. For the injured person, carrying a grudge keeps the burden of distress on them. Communicating the hurt releases that encumbrance. Judaism is also an eminently practical tradition, recognizing that hurt feelings can seldom, if ever, be wished or imagined away. Not giving the other person a chance to resolve the problem also deprives that person of an opportunity for spiritual growth. Few people deliberately want to cause pain and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t feel better if they were able to improve a relationship.

Many of us avoid tochachah because it can be awkward and painful to tell someone they have hurt us. But such challenges are essential to spiritual growth. If I were creating an ideal universe, I would hope to find a way for human beings to become more compassionate, generous, and loving without experiencing pain or discomfort. However, that is not how it works in our world. Just as our physical muscles have to stretch and sometimes ache to become stronger, our spiritual ones do as well. Difficult endeavors can also be the most rewarding.

A wonderful thing about being human is that, while our physical stature may halt at a certain point, we are always capable of achieving greater emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth. This is both the purpose and the promise of our Jewish traditions, especially those of the High Holidays. We are facing new challenges in this time of pandemic and I hope that our Jewish customs and community will help each of us take care of ourselves and others.

Wishing you a good beginning to this season of renewal,

Rabbi Drorah Setel