Radical Presence & the Practice of Rebuke

by Benay Lappe, President and Rosh Yeshiva

A SVARA-nik's hands sit on an open Talmud on a shtender. The beit midrash reference guide is sitting on the table.

The Jewish new year season tends to have one “star of the show”—teshuva, the practice of recognizing whom we’ve harmed and repairing that harm, addressing where we might have fallen short in becoming the people we want to be, and returning to right relationship with ourselves, with God, and with others. Resolving our relationships tends to take a front-row seat during this time of year. But it is often the case that the places in our lives where resolution is most difficult to achieve are not where we need to do teshuva with others, but actually where we are waiting for others to do teshuva with us. We assume that it is the other person’s responsibility to do the teshuva-lift, so to speak, and to approach us. And it is.

But it turns out that the tradition has another spiritual technology available to those of us who have been waiting—maybe with anger, or resentment, or maybe just with a hurt heart—for the person who hurt us to come and do teshuva with us, a teshuva which has not yet come, and which, otherwise, might never come. It’s called tochecha (Leviticus 19:17), typically translated as “rebuke,” and what I sometimes translate as “compassionate critique,” but, when done well, is much less confrontational and self-righteous than either of those translations make it out to be.

It’s the act of creating space for reconciliation when we are the harmed party, into which the one who harmed us and needs to do teshuva with us, but has not yet, might enter. It’s basically the process of helping them get on the teshuva train—primarily so that we can off-load the resentment and hurt we’re carrying. But also because, well, we’re supposed to care about each other’s well-being, and helping someone else do teshuva helps their well-being, too.

The tradition is suggesting that those of us who have been harmed might just have a role in facilitating the reconciliatory process, at least in situations where we feel that our greasing the wheels of teshuva might actually result in teshuva being done. Where we feel quite sure, however, that our efforts to create space for reconciliation will not be met with success, the tradition actually says that we are not only not required to try, but that we are obligated not to (Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 65b).

Our Rabbis, the ancient architects of the process of teshuva itself, had a lot to say about tochecha (most beautifully, for example, that “love without tochecha is not love, and peace without tochecha is not peace,” Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 54:3), but the actual practice of tochecha hasn’t gotten nearly as much traction as the practice of teshuva. Maybe that’s why, every year at this time, I find myself returning to a series of mayses, little narrative tales in the Talmud, about sages carrying out the mitzvah of tochecha and the success and troubles they run into.

These mayses that I love are in Masechet Yoma, the tractate of the Talmud that teaches us how the practices of Yom Kippur were shaped (and how we might re-shape them), and about the art and danger of this kind of rebuke. The Rabbis are so mindful of the difficulty of tochecha that they acknowledge that “There is no one who can do tochecha well, nor is there anyone who can receive it well” (Talmud Bavli, ‘Arakhin 16b). I find that very reassuring. They seem to be saying: You need to do this when you can and when it just might work, but know that you’re likely to get it wrong—so be extra, extra careful.

This year, as I was relearning these texts with my students, what really jumped out at us was one moment in one of the stories (Yoma 87a) that I hadn’t previously given much thought to. The entire story is just one line long:

ר’ זירא כי הוה ליה מילתא בהדי איניש הוה חליף ותני לקמיה וממציא ליה כי היכי דניתי וניפוק ליה מדעתיה

Rabbi Zeira, when he had a grievance with someone who had caused him harm, would pass back and forth in front of the offender and make himself available, so that the person who had caused him harm might come out and appease him.

When Rabbi Zeira was harmed by someone who failed to do teshuva with him, he would take on a proactive, embodied tochecha practice, casually strolling where the person who had harmed him might come upon him in order to create an opportunity for the wrong-doer to apologize and seek reconciliation. I don’t know why, but I always imagine Rabbi Zeira walking his dog up and down the block where the offender lives, giving the offender the opportunity to say: “Rabbi Zeira! Oh my gosh, I’m so glad to be running into you. I’ve been meaning to call…”

But if you read the passage closely, I think  you can see even more of the tactics that are being uplifted by the gemara. This year my students pointed this out to me, and I think they’re on to something! Here’s the passage again, with the actual words of the gemara in bold:

He would pass back and forth, repeatedly making himself visible, in the physical presence of the person who had hurt him; in front of the offender, showing up and remaining in connection with the person who had harmed him, despite how painful or hard it may have felt; and make himself available (mamtzi lei), going physically to where the offender was, doing the work of being radically present and showing up, open-hearted, to the relationship. Through each of these actions, Rabbi Zeira creates the conditions of real embodied tochecha, nurturing an opportunity for the person who had harmed him to reconnect and apologize.

In the past, when learning this text, I’d always focused on the idea that Rabbi Zeira is making himself physically available. Now, thanks to my students, I see that the phrase mamtzi lei might actually be suggesting something even more profound, namely that Rabbi Zeira is making himself available not only physically, but emotionally. The actual literal translation of the phrase mamzi lei is: “he makes able to him.” Rabbi Zeira is presenting himself, not only physically, but emotionally, in a way that will make the offender able to approach him to do teshuva. In other words, Rabbi Zeira, from the midst of his pain and hurt, presents his self to the person who has harmed him. He shows up with his full self to this relationship, remaining radically open and emotionally present to the potential for healing that might come when his offender catches on and activates the reconciliation process.

Rashi’s comment on this phrase “makes himself available” is striking, and adds to the powerful model that Rabbi Zeira offers us:

ממציא נפשיה – לפני מי שחטא לו אולי יבקש ממנו מחילה וימחול לו

Makes himself available – before the one who sinned against him, for maybe [the offender] will request forgiveness and he will forgive him.

Rashi adds a “maybe” to Rabbi Zeira’s internal process. Maybe, thinks Rabbi Zeira, there is some small possibility that the person who hurt me will see me continuing to show up, day after day, presenting my full, whole, open self, and will offer an apology. It might not happen, and that’s okay. But maybe it will, and he acts out of this “maybe” without attachment to the outcome. Whether or not the teshuva/reconciliation ever happens after Rabbi Zeira does his tochecha, we don’t know. What we do know is that the tradition offers us a description of a posture of presence, openness, and commitment to relationship that Rabbi Zeira holds. In this way, this mayse is not truly a story, but is instead a framework, a stance, an illustration of a posture towards healing and relationship that we might emulate.

Rabbi Zeira invites us into radical openness as a tool for tochecha, the practice of rebuke. It’s our job, he seems to suggest, to continue to offer rebuke precisely by being open and showing up, by not allowing harm to push us out of our communities, and to let our presence and unwavering openness be the rebuke it needs to be to our communities and those who have caused us harm.

It is almost impossible to imagine what Rabbi Zeira must have felt in his body in the moment when physically placing himself in close proximity to someone who has hurt him or caused him pain. When I think about this in my own life and relationships, I feel tightness, I feel my heart beating fast, and I notice the worry that fills my body.

Rabbi Zeira models a form of resilience that invites me into considering how and when I might be able to cultivate this ability to make myself available to those around me, both those I have hurt and those who have hurt me. This story might also just be a kal va’chomer, a conclusion about a difficult case from which we can, all the more so, draw out a conclusion about an easier case. If Rabbi Zeira can be available in this way for people who have hurt him, how much more so must he be able to make himself available, open, and present to the people who he, himself, has hurt.

This year, thanks to my students’ insights, I am focusing on the spiritual practice of being mamtzi lei, of working my staying-in-relationship muscles, of being radically present and available not only to those whom I’ve hurt, but to those who have hurt me. Maybe, just maybe, this will make all the difference.

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