In just a few days we will mark Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple. Our sages give many reasons for the destruction of the Temple (both the first and second) and the subsequent exiles which resulted. What is striking is that all of these reasons are in reference to us. That is, the many reasons the sages give for why the Temples were destroyed all point to some failure by the people of Israel, whether the neglect of mitzvot, murder, idolatry, senseless hatred (Yoma 9b), the failure to properly educate children, the absence of critique (Shabbat 119b), love of money (Yerushalmi Yoma 28c), bad leadership (Gittin 88a) and a host ofother reasons. The sages point, I believe, is not to absolve the Babylonians or Romans of any responsibility, but rather to utilize moments of crises and suffering as opportunities for introspection. It is an extraordinarily challenging lesson for all of us in both dire and mundane circumstances.
When we are in pain, when we feel threatened: existentially, economically, emotionally, socially or in other ways, our initial response, for many of us, is to find someone to blame. We are slighted by a friend, overlooked at work, ridiculed by an acquaintance, denied recognition or an opportunity, or more dramatically threatened in other ways. We think about how this or that person or organization is responsible for our suffering and the blaming itself makes us feel a little better, a little more in control, a little comfoted by our anger and indignation. We may even have revenge fantasies about how we will get back at this or that person or organization.
Our sages ask us instead to first inquire about our role in our suffering, to ask what we might have done that has created this situation in some way or that is causing us to feel pain in relationship to it. Again, this isn’t about absolving others of responsibility, and the sages are not shy in their critique of the Romans and Babylonians, but it is about first asking “what was my part.” In asking “what was my part” it is not that there is necessarily an asnwer. We may truly, at times, have had no part in the suffering that was caused to us. It is rather about beig accountable and taking control of our lives rather than leaving them at the mercy of circumstance. It is about making a decision about how I am going to work with this difficulty rather than staying in the passive and helpless position of blame.
Indeed, in their seminal work How We Choose to Be Happy, Rick Foster and Greg Hicks list accontability and the absence of blame as one of the essential nine choices that genuinely happy people make. As they explain,
“Of the many behaviors that characterize happy people, one stands out resoundingly. Happy people avoid blaming in all its incarnations. They don’t blame other people, they don’t blame circumstances, and they don’t blame themselves. To happy people, blame serves no purpose. It doesn’t ever get us what we truly desire…. The choice to be accountable is the choice to be masters of our own fates. As such, we choose to respond to our real emotions — love, anger, sadness, joy. How do we find these authentic feelings? By looking at ‘my part.’” (How We Choose to Be Happy, p. 51).
This is what our sages call upon us to do, to ask, “what is my part?” How did I/we create this situation of suffering, not as another strategy of blame, but simply as a way to see if there is anything under my control that I can do to improve and transform the situation.
While at times we may have had no role in the suffering we are experiencing, most often, especially when speaking of human relationships whether at home, work, or in community, our pain is connected, in some way, to our handling of the situation and the relationship. I know in my own conflicts, however much I might wish not to admit it, my part is always significant. Whether or not I have initiated the conflict, my unwise reaction, blame and defensiveness often make the conflict worse.
May we all, in these difficult days for the Jewish people, take some time to think about “our part”, as individuals, families, communities, companies and as a nation. How can we, with maturity and courage, be accounatble for our own situation? How can we, in whatever situation we find ourselves, focus on how we can bring healing and transformation, tikku, rather than be stuck in cycles of blame? May we find the courage this Tisha B’Av to look inside and genuinely ask ourselves the question of “our part”, not only, or even most importanlty, in what has happened, but, most significanlty, our part in how we move forward towards a redeemed world.