Through a Mussar Lens: A Model for Healing Relationships
One of the striking aspects of the Torah is its depiction of human relationships in all their difficulties, starting with Cain and Abel and continuing through many other instances of domestic strife. What if I told you that a 16th century rabbi wrote a handbook for healing relationships that is as applicable today as it was five centuries ago. Would you believe me? But it is true. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522–1570) is that 16th century rabbi, and his guidelines for creating loving relationships occupy the whole first section of his classic work, Tomer Devorah [Palm Tree of Deborah].
That first section of Tomer Devorah begins by enumerating the 13 characteristics of God that we are meant to emulate in our own lives. These are the 13 qualities of compassion (rachamim) mentioned in the verses of Micha (7:18-20), which begin: “Who is a God like you, pardoning sin and overlooking the crimes of the remnant of His heritage? God does not retain anger forever, because God delights in grace.”
Ramak (the acronym for Rabbi Cordovero’s name) writes 13 brief lessons for living, one for every quality of divine compassion mentioned in Micha. Each one of the lessons he presents focuses on actualizing one of those traits in the context of a difficult human relationship. Although he is not explicit about this, it seems clear from the text that he is focusing on working with the relationships we have with people whom we love, who no doubt annoy us and offend us and maybe even drive us crazy from time to time. Not in an abusive or pathological way, just in the normal way everybody I am close to bruises me and drives me crazy—as I am sure I do them (though surely less than they do me).
His model for this type of relationship is the bond between Israel and God. The link is loving and strong and is desired by both parties, but we on the human side do plenty to offend our Partner. When we study our Partner’s responses to our offenses, we can extract for us a powerful model for dealing with the people in our lives. This is exactly what Ramak prescribes, and each section of the chapter of Tomer Devorah begins with a description of divine compassion and ends with a statement along the lines of, “Behold! This is a virtue a person should make his own, namely, ….” and then he goes on to make explicit how we should bring this divinely inspired behavior into our own relationships.
To show you how this works in practice, think of someone whom you love and to whom you want to remain close, or get even closer. If the biblical model is correct, we can assume that this person in some way creates messes in your life to which you react, and that damages the relationship. Right? Now if you want to heal the relationship, for the sake of the present moment and for the long-term, then according to Ramak, the first trait you need to cultivate in yourself is tolerance. If you cannot tolerate them and their behavior, you will either run away or strike back, and neither of those options is likely to bring about growth in you nor healing in the relationship.
Ramak then turns to the second quality we need to develop in ourselves in the context of relationship, and the trait he identifies in God’s behavior turns out to be tolerance as well. He is making a very strong point: There are only 13 traits and two—the very first two—are “tolerance.”
We learn from this that healing our loving relationships calls for a great deal of forbearance. The message seems to be that we have to be prepared to stand the heat in order for the relationship to get tempered.
Only after two doses of tolerance does he move on to discuss other steps we can take in the pursuit of more sound and fulfilling human relationships, such as pardoning wrongs that have been done to us, desiring the well-being of the one who offends us, not speaking negatively about the other, having compassion and so on. In every case, God’s responses to Israel provide the model that is held up for us to emulate.
I cannot do justice to the nuance and detail in the chapter in this short column. I urge you to go and read it directly. You will see for yourself that the book contains a great deal of wisdom that can help you grow and, at the same time, heal your relationships.
The problem is that many of us will neither pay attention to the details nor follow the steps he lays out because changing is a lot harder to do than just blaming the other person, or simply wishing the relationship would improve. But the truth is that just does not work. Human relationships are challenging by their very nature, and that is the way God set it up right from the time of Genesis / Bereishit. We have to conclude that must be the way it is supposed to be. Why would that be? Because we are here in this world to cultivate the holiness that is our potential, and working with the challenges and trials we face in our relationships is where we can do that most effectively. Working to heal our relationships is a valuable way to bring about change in ourselves as well. And that makes sense, because if we do not change ourselves, how can we expect our relationships to change?
When your spouse or parent or child pushes your buttons, that says as much about your buttons as it does about their provocative behavior. As I heard someone say once, “No wonder my mother pushes my buttons. She installed them.” But the truth is deeper and more universal. We all have aspects of character (middot; soul-traits) where we have potential to grow. Those less-than-perfect traits can be masked in everyday life but are fully exposed with those with whom we are closest. It is those people, in fact, who bring out the worst in us, which is actually an unlikely gift because that is how our curriculum for growth is revealed to our own eyes as it really is. That awareness is the first step toward elevating those traits, and nowhere are we brought to face the truth of our own character more than in our own messy family.
We would much prefer to skip the struggle and go straight to deep intimacy with others and holiness in ourselves, but the irony is that the very process of struggling with the other is what brings love and intimacy into the home and holiness into our hearts. We are fortunate to have had wise ancestors who handed down to us lessons describing how to do just that.
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