T’shuvah, repentance/return/restitution, is our focus during Elul and our High Holy Day observances. Toch’chah, sincere and productive rebuke, is its catalyst. Toch’chah might come from ourselves; it might come from our community; or it might come directly from the person(s) we harmed. In Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:17, God tells us that toch’chah is a positive action: “hocheiach tochiach et-amecha,” rebuke your people. Toch’chah makes t’shuvah possible, and healthy processes of toch’chah and t’shuvah allow people to live together in community.
In the beginning of Chapter 21 of B’reishit (Genesis), we hear of grave harm done to Hagar, enslaved by Avraham and Sarah. Avraham reluctantly sends her and her son Ishmael, who is also Avraham’s son, into the wilderness at Sarah’s command. Hagar is not able to voice direct toch’chah to Avraham (or Sarah). She takes her child and she struggles through the wilderness until their water has run out. It falls to God to hear Hagar’s distress (still not expressed as rebuke), and to retributively promise her that Ishmael will survive and be the progenitor of a great nation of people. Avraham and Sarah take no responsibility for the harm they’ve done; they make no restitution or apology to Hagar; and, notably, there’s no family reunion. Hagar and Ishmael settle far away, and Ishmael doesn’t return to his birthplace until Avraham’s death.
Later in the chapter, Avraham swears mutual nonaggression with King Avimelech of B’er Sheva. Then – and only then – Avraham rebukes Avimelech, whose servants have seized Avraham’s wells of water. Avimelech responds: “I do not know who did this; you did not tell me, nor have I heard of it until today.” (B’reishit 21:26, Etz Hayyim translation) Once the problem is out in the open, pathways to t’shuvah emerge. Avimelech makes t’shuvah on behalf of his servants. As the two swear a second pact, Avimelech accepts seven bonus ewes from Avraham, acknowledging Avraham’s ownership of the wells, and the problem is resolved. Avraham is now able to put down roots in Avimelech’s land, trusting in their pacts, Avimelech’s authority, and in the process of toch’chah and t’shuvah. He plants a tamarisk tree and “live[s] in the land of the Philistines a long time.” (B’reishit 21:34)
In both cases, the people who caused the harm directly don’t do t’shuvah. King Avimelech and the King of Kings step in to address the needs of the victims. Sforno comments why a human king might take responsibility for making things right: “A king does interfere in such matters only if one of two conditions exist: 1) If the party that has suffered robbery complains loudly; and 2) if neutral people aware of the robbery raise their voices in protest.” (Sforno on B’reishit 21:26) If the authority doesn’t know about a wrong, say Avimelech and Sforno, and they’re not all-knowing God, how can they be expected to try to fix it?
Yet without toch’cha and t’shuvah between people, broken trust can’t be regrown. Hagar and Ishmael survive through God’s intervention. But they don’t come back.
People in extremely vulnerable positions, like Hagar – enslaved, without control over her own reproductive system and with a child to protect – may not feel safe enough to demand redress. (I think of some immigrant families, deeply reluctant to call the police when they are victims of crimes, for fear of incarceration and/or deportation.) Avraham, confident in Avimelech’s nonaggression, can speak openly to the king and ask for what he needs in order for the theft of his wells to be made right. Sforno also gives us a third model of toch’cha: people unharmed but aware can raise their voices in support of the victim(s), protest the wrong, and encourage the authority to step in and make it right.
The measure of any society, our Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur reminds us, will always be taken by how we treat our most vulnerable. In Martin Buber’s “Tales of the Chasidim,” we read Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk’s teaching on Proverbs 20:6, “A trustworthy man, who can find?” The Kotzker Rebbe says that a trustworthy person can’t be found, like a lost sandal, “for he is well hidden – you may stand right in front of him and yet you will not find him.” Just as the spring of water was not revealed to Hagar until she cried out and a dialogue began between her and the Divine, trustworthiness can only be revealed within the context of a relationship.
Hagar, Avraham, Avimelech, Sforno, and the Kotzker Rebbe encourage us to create reasons for others to trust us, and to seek out reasons to trust others. Let’s remember, as we acknowledge God’s supreme authority this year, where our own positions of power lie. Let’s harness our ability to constructively rebuke and advocate – on our own behalf and for others – that together, we may build a better world and stronger relationships in which all may be confident of finding justice.
Cantor Vera Broekhuysen is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El of Haverhill.