03 October 2017

Kol Nidre 5778 Sermon: One Hundred Percent Responsibility

Written by Rabbi Brian Stoller

So, I understand there’s a football game tonight.  I guess the Huskers didn’t realize it’s Kol Nidrei, huh?

Oh well.  I’m glad you’re here.

And who knew football was going to be such a hot topic this Yom Kippur?

* * *

So, speaking of football: What do you think is the difference is between football and real life?

(I know, a lot of you are mumbling: What is this guy talking about?  Football is real life.) 

But there actually is a big difference, at least in one respect.

Football is a zero-sum game.  One team wins and the other team loses.  Black-and-white.  (Or red-and-white, as the case may be.)

But life?  Life isn’t a zero-sum game.  Not when it comes to relationships. 

When it comes to conflict, and heartache, and bruised feelings and bruised egos, and who’s right and who’s wrong – very rarely is there a clear winner or a clear loser.

Life’s just not that simple.

*

Our Sages say in the Mishnah: “For sins committed by one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until the one who acted wrongly has appeased the person he wronged.”

The point is this: the one who acted wrongly has the responsibility to reach out and apologize.

But the problem is: when there’s conflict between two people, it’s rarely the case that one person is completely in the wrong and one person is completely in the right.

Relationships just aren’t that black-and-white.

Usually, both of us end up doing things and saying things we shouldn’t, things that cause pain and hurt to the other.

And since we’ve both acted wrongly, it’s both of us who need to reach out and apologize.

And that’s the hard part.

When someone has caused us pain, it’s hard to reach out to them and say “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

He’s the one who hurt meHe’s the one who should be asking me for forgiveness!”

Yes…he should.  And

It’s just not that simple.  Relationships aren’t a zero-sum game.

*

Some of us here tonight, I know, are struggling with the pain of unresolved conflict.  It’s weighing on us.  It hurts.  And we’re not sure what to do about it.

--Maybe it’s a friend.  We’ve had an argument or some kind of falling out, and we haven’t talked in a while.  And we miss them.

--Maybe it’s our spouse.  We haven’t made enough time for each other lately, and we’re drifting apart – and home feels cold and tense, instead of warm and peaceful like it used to.

--Maybe it’s a colleague.  We had words over something, or a confrontation – and now our interactions are awkward and uncomfortable.  So instead of talking it out, we just avoid each other.

--Or maybe it’s our child.  They’ve told us we’re too critical, too judgmental, not understanding or supportive enough.  And they’ve stopped calling.  And we feel abandoned and alone.

I want you to know: Whatever it is that you’re struggling with, you’re not alone. 

I’ll tell you right now: I’ve got some wounds that still hurt pretty badly.  I get it.

*

I learned something recently from a mentor of mine, and it’s helped me tremendously, and I want to share it with you.  

It’s called the Doctrine of 100-Percent Responsibility.

Here’s how it works:

It says that every person is 100% responsible for his or her own behavior – no more, and no less.

Unfortunately, when we have conflict in our relationships, we have a tendency to do one of two things:

--Either: because we feel guilty, we accept more than our 100% share of responsibility – and take responsibility for the other person’s behavior, in addition to our own.

--Or, because we can be self-righteousness and “stiff-necked,” as the Torah puts it, we refuse to admit any fault, and instead we blame our own bad behavior on them.

Both of these tendencies are mistaken. 

We can and must take exactly 100% responsibility for our own behavior – no more, and no less.

--So, if we’ve been unkind to someone, we’re 100% responsible for that – even if they’ve been unkind to us, too.

--If we’ve spoken harshly to them or about them, we’re 100% responsible for that – even if what we said is true.

--If we’ve lost our temper and lashed out in anger, we’re 100% responsible for that – even if we feel they drove us to it.

Whatever they may have done, they are responsible for it.

But it’s no justification for our failure to be our highest self.

We are 100% responsible for our own behavior, no excuses.  Period.

*

Simple as it sounds – boy, is it hard to get there.

It’s natural to think of it in black-and-white terms, and say: “They’re clearly in the wrong, and I’m clearly in the right.”

“And yeah, maybe I’ve done some things I shouldn’t have.  But seriously?  That’s because of what they did to me!  And what they did is much worse!”

And we hold to that line – because it feels like if we were to concede any fault on our own part, it would somehow cause our story to crack, and undermine our legitimate feelings of being wronged, and mean that they aren’t as guilty as we say they are.

But of course, that’s not the case.  It is possible to hold two truths at the same time:

--It can be completely true that they behaved horribly toward us and wounded us terribly;

--And, at the same time, it can be completely true that we said and did things that caused them pain, too.

And neither of these truths takes anything away from the other.  Because both are true; both are reality.

And once we see that, we have to own it.  We have to own our transgressions, and do what God demands of us when we’ve transgressed:

And that’s t’shuvah: atonement.

“For sins committed by one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until the one who acted wrongly has appeased the person he wronged.”

That means we have to reach out to the other person, and say “I’m sorry.”

Maybe we write a letter, maybe it’s a phone call, or a face-to-face conversation.

But one way or another, we have to do it.  There’s just no way around it.

* * *

This isn’t just a sermon for me. 

As I said, I’ve got wounds.  And they’re fresh, and they’re raw – just like yours.

And I’m not telling you to do something I haven’t done myself.  Recently.

I know it isn’t easy.  In fact, it’s really, really hard. 

But doing t’shuvah is a mitzvah, a religious obligation – and it’s the right thing to do.

I’ve struggled with this mightily.  I’ve studied it intently, and I’ve prayed about it intently. 

And here’s the approach I’ve come up with to that letter we need to write, or that conversation we need to have. 

Three principles:

* * *

First: Acknowledge the good in the other person.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav teaches that there’s good in every single person, even the worst people, because we’re all created in the image of God.

The problem is: when someone has hurt us, it’s hard to see the good in them.  Or, maybe more to the point, it’s hard to remember the good that’s in them.

After all, most of the time, the conflicts we have are with people who are close to us, people we care about – people who, at some point in the past, we liked, or loved.

So it’s a powerful spiritual practice to remind ourselves of the good – their good qualities, the good times we’ve shared, the good things they’ve done for us.

The good is there, in them; we just may not want to acknowledge it.

But we need to acknowledge it anyway.  And we have to do it straight-up, and with no qualifications. 

Tell them: “You’ve been a good friend, or a good parent, or a good child, or a good sister or brother to me in the past.” 

And tell them how. And thank them for it.

Because it’s true.

Sadly, we tend to hold on so tightly to the negative that we lose our grip on the positive.

But being honest about the good in them is important, because it helps us see the full picture of who they are, and we may have a little less difficulty taking responsibility for the wrongs we’ve done to them.

* * *

The second principle is to confess the sins we’ve committed against them.

Maimonides says confession is the essence of t’shuvah – that even if we’ve admitted our sins to ourselves and to God privately, we still haven’t made t’shuvah until we’ve confessed our transgressions directly to the person we’ve wronged.

And that’s painful to do. 

Probably because speaking our sins aloud or putting them in writing makes them feel real in a way they just don’t if we only think about them internally.

And that’s the point. 

Genuine t’shuvah requires us to really feel and internalize the wrongs we’ve done – and we can’t do that unless we confess them.  Outwardly and specifically. 

So we have to dig deeply, and be completely honest with ourselves about how we’ve behaved in the whole conflict.

And when we do, we’ll know what we’ve done wrong…

And we won’t feel at peace until we confess it, and take 100% responsibility for our actions, and say, “I’m sorry.”

Straight-up, no qualifications, no excuses:

--“For criticizing you and judging you unfairly, I am sorry.”

--“For ignoring you, or dismissing you, or not validating your feelings, I am sorry.”

--“For being too self-absorbed and not being there when you needed me, I am sorry.”

Do it honestly and do it sincerely.

Because confessing our sins directly to the person we’ve wronged – even and especially when we feel wronged by them, too – that’s the essence of t’shuvah.

*  * *

The third and final principle is: Do it unconditionally.

Genuine t’shuvah isn’t something we do because we expect something in return.

It’s something we do because taking 100% responsibility for our own actions is a mitzvah.           

It would be great if, after we find the strength and the courage to do the right thing, the other person would respond in kind.

And maybe that will happen.

But we have to go into this knowing that it might not. 

--They may never say, “thank you for your honesty.” 

--They may never say, “I forgive you.” 

--They may never give us the apology we know they owe us. 

--We may never even hear anything from them.

And we have to be OK with that.

Should they do the right thing?  Absolutely. 

Will they?  Who knows?

We can’t control what they do.

But we can control what we do.

And if we do t’shuvah unconditionally, then, regardless of how they respond – whether or not they respond at all – we can be at peace knowing we tried to bring about healing and reconciliation.

* * *

Yom Kippur starts now, tonight.

And here’s what I’m asking you to do.  Everyone in this sanctuary.

Think of one person whom you know, deep in the hidden recesses of your heart, you need to apologize to.

Pray about it; meditate about it; reflect on it. 

Find the strength, and the courage, and the humility that’s in you.

And sit down, and write them a letter.  Or give them a call.

And do t’shuvah.

--Acknowledge the good in them, and thank them for it;

--Confess your transgressions honestly, and take 100% responsibility for your own behavior;

--Do it unconditionally and wholeheartedly.  Do it because it’s the right thing to do.

--And do it before the day is out tomorrow.

Because if we can do these things, even in our pain and our hurt – then our t’shuvah will be genuine, and it will be transformative.

And it will bring us, and the whole world, one step closer to wholeness.

Shanah tovah.

About the Author

Rabbi Brian Stoller

Rabbi Brian Stoller

Rabbi Stoller - Senior Rabbi
bstoller@templeisraelomaha.com

Rabbi A. Brian Stoller joined Temple Israel as Senior Rabbi in 2017. He is a friendly, patient, and welcoming presence known for greeting people warmly, remembering our names, and just being himself. He is also an energetic, knowledgable, and passionate teacher who challenges us intellectually and guides us in mining Judaism’s sacred texts for insights that will help us navigate the unique circumstances of our own lives. As a prayer leader, he strives to pray not on behalf ofhis congregants, but with us, so that together we can rise toward the heavens. Most importantly, he is a caring and devoted relationship-builder who genuinely enjoys people and wants to be our friend. As Rabbi Stoller has said, “I just go out there and try to be myself because I believe that, in the end, all of us are seeking the same thing: to feel loved, to find meaning and purpose in life, and to be embraced by people who genuinely care. In my view, a synagogue’s mission is to create this kind of community for its members. All the rest, as they say, is commentary.”

Following the dictum that “the teacher of Torah must be a student of Torah throughout his life,” Rabbi Stoller is currently pursuing a doctorate in halakhah (Jewish law) and has published a number of essays on Jewish law, practice, and theology. He is an active member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), serving on the Responsa Committee, the annual convention planning team, and the editorial board of the CCAR Journal. Rabbi Stoller received his ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Cincinnati campus in 2008, and served as Associate Rabbi of Congregation BJBE in Deerfield, IL from 2008-2017. He grew up in Houston, TX (Congregation Emanu El), and earned a degree in Honors Business and Finance from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996.

Before entering rabbinic school, Rabbi Stoller spent seven years in professional politics, working on campaigns in Texas, Colorado, and Illinois, and serving as Press Secretary to then-U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald (IL) in Washington, DC from 1999-2003. After seeing the Pentagon burn from his office window on September 11, 2001 and learning of a childhood friend’s death from brain cancer a year later, Brian knew the time had come to follow his deeply-held desire to become a rabbi. “It was then that I finally understood: life is fragile; we do not know how long we are going to be here,” he has said. “For several years, I had been too fearful, too anxious about change to pursue what I knew in my heart I wanted to do with my life, but now I was ready to go for it. Aside from marrying Karen and starting a family, it was the best decision I have ever made.”

Rabbi Stoller is proud to be part of Temple Israel, which he describes as “a warm, friendly, welcoming, close-knit congregation, with the vision and the courage to change our community and our world for the better.” He lives in Omaha with his wife Karen and his two children, Lindsay and Zachary. In his free time, Rabbi Stoller enjoys reading classical Jewish texts (yes, really!), cycling, and re-watching episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest. Optional login below.