Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

What Do We Do With Our Hurts — Letter from the Rabbi

Have you ever been hurt or damaged by what someone has done to you? Do you remember how it felt – and perhaps how the memory still upsets you? Were you treated brutally? Or taken advantage of financially? Were you teased or hurt by cruel things said to you? Were you damaged because someone was prejudiced against your people? Were you ignored or laughed at in conversation?

I think most of us can recall all sorts of ways we've been hurt, in our feelings, our body or our pocketbook. What do we do with these hurts? For some, what comes naturally is to take them out on others – to damage others like we've been damaged. Others may see the best thing to do is put aside our hurts (if not quite forgive and forget), and get on with our lives.

Because of a Torah reading this month that contains that powerful principle, Love your neighbor as yourself (sometimes called the Golden Rule), I have been thinking about a famous variation of it. Some of you may be familiar with the story about Hillel, the great Jewish sage who lived two thousand years ago: a non-Jewish person came before Hillel wanting to be converted, on condition that Hillel would teach him the whole of Torah while the man was standing on one foot. Hillel said to him, "What is hateful to you, do not do to others: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it."

What Hillel is doing here is taking the Golden Rule and making it much easier to understand and use. Love your neighbor as yourself is a wonderful principle from which all other moral rules derives, but it is not always easy to know how to apply to our lives. However, if we can hold in our minds the words of Hillel – What is hateful to you, do not do to others – we have a ready guide to behavior. For this principle tells us what to do with our own feelings about how we like, or hate, to be treated, and what to do with all those hurts we have suffered: not to put them aside, not to take them out on others, but instead to use them to guide our life and our actions for the good.

For instance, if I know how horrible it was for me to be teased or subjected to cruel words, I must never do that to others. If I recall the hurt I felt as a child being called a "dirty Jew" (thankfully that was not a frequent happening), then that must guide how I think about other peoples, or religions, or races, or nationalities: not ascribe negative characteristics to those groups, and not treat members of them badly because of those imagined characteristics.

If I have felt ignored when I was in need or distress, or when I had something to say, then I need to be especially careful not to ignore others. If I have found my reputation damaged because people have been gossiping about me, I must guard against gossiping about others. Of course there are many wrongs that I personally haven’t suffered, but I can imagine how much I'd hate the experience, and that should be a warning bell for me not to cause such wrongs to others.

Hillel's demand that we use our own experience and feelings as a guide to action is reflects a teaching found frequently in Torah, about how we should treat the "stranger" – i.e. the immigrant from another land who lives amongst us. The Torah teaches: "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. He shall be to you as one of your citizens: you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." We are to use our own bad experiences as strangers (and slaves) in Egypt – or wherever we have lived as a minority community in a country not our own – to ensure that strangers among us are treated much better.

While this is how Torah tells us to treat the stranger, Hillel's teaching, What is hateful to you, do not do to others, is a powerful reminder about all our actions. Our experiences, bad experiences in particular, are to be central to our moral stance in the world; and we cannot claim to be living ethically if we ignore those experiences in how we treat others.

Rabbi Anthony Elman Rabbi Anthony Elman is the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home and also serves as Rabbi of the Home's Grancell Village campus. His professional background is multifaceted, encompassing the fields of law, social work, and psychotherapy. Rabbi Elman has been with the Home since his ordination and graduation from the Academy for Jewish Religion-California in May 2007

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