Years ago, I remember doing a chaplaincy rotation at a hospital in Manhattan, visiting patients in various medical and surgical units. As part of the training, other clergy offered feedback to me about how I could improve my hospital visits, by critiquing what I would say and how it would make someone feel. I remember one instance that really upset me. A colleague said, “when you say X, it sounds like you don’t care.”
Hearing this upset me for two reasons. First, my words never even remotely got close to saying “I don’t care.” Secondly, “not caring” was not my intention at all! What was I to do with this feedback? Do I explain to them why my words were indeed caring? Or, for the sake of peace, do I simply give in and accept responsibility even when I don’t believe that I should?
We learn a little about responsibility in parashat Va’Etchanan, our Torah portion this week. It is here that Moses describes how he will not enter the Promised Land. But why would he not enter the land? Was it something that he did? Was it something that others did?
In speaking with the Israelites, Moses summarizes his conversation with God: “‘Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, the good hill country, and the Lebanon.’ But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me” (Deuteronomy 3:25-26). In reading this passage, I am struck by one word “l’ma’anchem,” which loosely translates as “on your account.” What does this mean in context? Could Moses be blaming the Israelites for his not entering the Promised Land?
According to Rashi (11th century, France), this is indeed the case. Rashi quotes Psalm 106:32 which states how “they provoked wrath at the waters of Meribah and Moses suffered on their account.” Therefore, according to Rashi, l’ma’anchem, stating “on your account” is Moses’ way of blaming the Israelites for his not being permitted to enter the Promised Land. In short, this was Moses’ way of saying “but it’s your fault!”
When we read the comments of Abarbanel (15th century, Portugal), however, we get a different side of the story. According to Abarbanel, Moses should not have placed the blame on others. After all, it was Moses who was responsible for this generation of Israelites not entering the land since he provoked them with questions that would ultimately stir up the people and prevent them from entering it (Numbers 13:18).
So which was it? Who was to blame for Moses not entering the Promised Land? Was it the Israelites or Moses?
Perhaps it is both.
When we are confronted with disappointing situations in life, often our go-to response is to defend ourselves. We might place the blame on others. We might justify what we did because of a given situation. In the case of my hospital chaplaincy rotation, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to shout, “that’s not what I said!” I wanted to scream, “but you didn’t hear me correctly; that’s not what I meant!” My frustration was exacerbated by the fact that I reminded my colleague of someone else in his life who didn’t care about him. So why is it my fault that you are projecting responsibility on me because of your relationship with that other person?
But ultimately, I learned that this was only half the story. Because when it came down to it, perhaps I could have chosen my words more carefully. Perhaps I could have acted more gently. Perhaps I could have spoken more vulnerably from my heart.
In Hebrew we would say “gam v’gam.” Both this and this are true.
I’ve learned — and I’m still learning — that placing the blame, in most situations, is not so black-and-white. It’s often the other person’s fault. And, at the same time, it’s often mine. But the more that I can hold myself accountable — and try to see my part in taking responsibility, the greater my connection with that other person will be. L’ma’anchem means “on your account.” Perhaps this is not a statement of blame, but a goal for a higher purpose. In other words, for your sake, for my sake, for the sake of something greater than us, the challenge of both parties is to have enough self-awareness to accept responsibility for how the situation unfolded.
Gam v’gam. Moses and the Israelites are mutually responsible. Why? L’ma’anchem, for your sake, for our sake, for a greater, more sacred purpose.
When my brain charges with feelings of defensiveness, it is my challenge to take responsibility by calling upon the gentleness of my heart. And in doing so, it is liberating for my soul to humbly acknowledge, “I could have done better.”