Taking a Hard Look at Our Relationships

Rabbi Joe Black

The individual relationships we share are the backbone of creating a kehillah kedosha—a sacred community.

Martin Buber, in his classic work, I and Thou, teaches that there are two basic types of human relationships: “I-It” and “I-Thou." An “I-It” relationship is one in which we interact with others for the purpose of gaining something. Such relationships can take place in the arena of commerce, entertainment or any other experience where we interact with others on a daily basis. An “I-It” relationship is not necessarily a bad thing: the majority of our relationships are this type. When I go to the store to purchase an article of clothing and I hand the sales person the required money, we have had an “I-It” relationship. When I work on a project with a co-worker, this too can often be an "I-It" interaction. Of course, these relationships have the potential to be destructive and manipulating -- especially when we use them for the purpose of our own gain at the expense or hurt of others.

An “I-Thou” relationship, on the other hand, is not about business, personal or professional gain. It is the purest (and rarest) of all connections. According to Buber, when we come in contact with another person as a “Thou,” we experience the essential holiness of their soul. “I-Thou” relationships become the template for experiencing God in the world.

This time of Cheshbon Ha-nefesh (soul searching) during the month of Elul gives us an opportunity to examine the central relationships in our lives. Almost everything we do involves other people. We have different kinds of relationships: personal, professional, romantic and platonic. And yet, all of our dealings with others – both “I-It” and “I-Thou”– have the potential for holiness. The Torah teaches that every person is created in the image of God. How we treat others must reflect this awareness.

The Mishnah teaches that on Yom Kippur the sins we have committed against God will be forgiven if we truly are repentant. The sins we commit against others, however, cannot be forgiven unless and until we have asked those whom we have wronged to forgive us. In many ways, this is one of the most difficult aspects of Cheshbon Ha-nefesh. It means that we have to take risks by reaching out to others. We may encounter resistance, anger, or resentment. Sometimes it is impossible to reach out to others – and yet, it is our duty to do all that we can to assess whether or not reconciliation is possible. If there is the slightest hope – then we need to try – even if we fail.

These questions may help you think about the status of the many different relationships in your life. Although it is not a complete list, it can serve as a starting point to improve the relationships in your life.

  1. Have I been able to see the holiness in those closest to me?
  2. Are there people I have wronged from whom I need to ask forgiveness?
  3. Do I have the strength to take the risk of asking those whom I have wronged for their forgiveness?
  4. Have I shut out the pain of others in other parts of the world? In my country? My city? My congregation? My neighborhood? My family?
  5. Have I taken time recently to let the most important people in my life know how much I care about them?
  6. Have I done all that I could to repair damaged relationships in my life?
  7. Have I taken part in any business or personal transactions this past year that were against my religious, moral or ethical principles? Did I ever ignore the gnawing feeling in my kishkes that told me that I took advantage of someone else?

May this time of Cheshbon Ha-nefesh be fruitful for all of us as we prepare to enter into the holiest days of the year.

This post is part of #BlogElul, a series of social media posts created during Elul, the month preceding the High Holidays. During Elul, it is customary for Jews to prepare spiritually for the upcoming new year. An annual project, #Blog Elul is the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Learn how you can participate.