Imagine the following scenario: Little Johnny has had a rough day. He’s sitting in the playroom building a Lego tower when his little sister toddles over and, giggling, knocks said tower to the floor. Enraged, Johnny lashes out – at his sister, at the Legos, at every toy within reach. Soon, both Johnny and his sister are sobbing, and the playroom more closely resembles a war zone. Beside herself, Johnny’s mother sends Johnny to his room to “calm down,” instructing him to come back down when he’s ready to apologize to his sister and clean up his mess.
In DBT terms, apologizing and cleaning up the chaos in the playroom would be called a repair. Proportionate to the damage he’s done, Johnny must rectify his wrongdoing and learn that there are consequences to behaviors. Yet there is another crucial layer to this interaction that also warrants attention.
Let’s imagine Johnny comes back down to the playroom, apologizes to his sister, and spends the better part of twenty minutes putting away the toys he’d previously flung all over the place in his distress. His mother comes in as he’s finishing up, looks around at the repair that’s been made, and nods her head approvingly, and promptly walks out, not looking at or saying anything to Johnny. How might Johnny feel? Better still, how would you feel if you were him? We imagine that Johnny might be left feeling sad, ashamed, his eyes downcast and his head hung low. Now, not only has he had a bad day and feels sad and ashamed about his behavior, but he may also think his mother is disappointed and doesn’t want to talk to him.
What Johnny needs in that moment is assurance that he is still loved and accepted, despite his big emotions and their consequences. What he needs is for his parent to accept his repair, close the chapter on his past behavior, and give him another chance to prove himself. What he needs is an opportunity to demonstrate that he is capable of building another Lego tower, of tolerating his sister’s interference, maybe with some help.
Perhaps this scenario resonates with us because we’ve been in the place of Johnny, or his mother, (or his little sister), or because we recognize the importance of giving space for second chances in all sorts of relationships. Relationships are one of the most fundamental predictors of psychological well-being. In fact, our inherent need and drive for connection with others often underlies much of our joy and distress in life. A key part of maintaining these connections is recognizing that relationships often undergo ruptures, bumps along the way that must be navigated and repaired. Often, it is this process of repairing and recovering from setbacks that most contributes to a relationship’s health and success.
Yet, when allowing another to make a repair in a relationship, it is often difficult to grant that space in a warm, loving way. Perhaps we let the other person apologize and “prove themselves,” but we do so coldly, or continue to punish the person emotionally through silent treatment or withholding emotion or connection. True repair is not just fixing what has been broken; it is allowing another person, whether they are a child, friend, spouse, or coworker, an opportunity to rectify ruptures in a way that allows them to walk away without shame and with their heads held high once the damage has been repaired.
Though the story of Chet Ha’Egel appears in the latter half of Parshas Ki Sisa, many Rishonim agree that the true chronological order is that the Chet Ha’Egel occurred before the census that starts off this week’s Parsha. Hashem tells Moshe to count Bnei Yisrael, saying (30:12-13), “Ki sisa es rosh bnei yisrael lifkudeihem… zeh yitnu… machatzis hashekel bishekel hakodesh,” when you take a census of Bnei Yisrael, each man included in the census shall contribute a half shekel coin. The Ohr HaChaim wonders why the words “Ki Sisa,” when you raise up, are used to refer to the act of counting, rather than “ki sifkod,” as the Torah does elsewhere. Why does Hashem use this terminology to refer to counting Bnei Yisrael?
The Ohr HaChaim explains that Hashem wanted to uplift Klal Yisrael following the sin of the Golden Calf. He notes that when one sins, there is a natural shame response that occurs – we feel badly, we hang our heads. As such, Hakadosh Baruch Hu wanted to give Bnei Yisrael the opportunity to make a repair for their sin, and to feel like they were valued once again. In direct correlation to their sin, to which Bnei Yisrael contributed their gold, now in this census they contribute a half shekel coin. As Rashi notes later in Bamidbar (1:1), Hashem counts us because He loves us. Taking a census is symbolic of that love, and therefore contributing directly to the census allows the remnants of Klal Yisrael who have survived the plague following Chet Ha’egel to feel loved and valued, and to return to their relationship with God with their heads literally raised up.
Through this census in Parshas Ki Sisa, and through the very purposeful use of the words “Ki Sisa,” which means, “when you lift up,” HaKadosh Baruch Hu teaches us a powerful lesson about what it means to truly repair a rift in a relationship. The Chet Ha’Egel, following so quickly on the heels of the tremendous experience of Matan Torah, was a truly devastating blow to our relationship with God. And we needed to be punished for it. In the aftermath of that punishment, Hashem turns to us and says – do not hang your heads any longer. Let Me show you that you are valued and give you a chance to contribute to the Tikkun for your sin through donating Shkalim that will be used for holy purposes.
When someone has hurt us in a relationship that is healthy and effective for us to maintain, it is crucial that we afford him or her the opportunity not only to apologize, but to make a repair. A repair can come in many forms. Similar to the Teshuva process outlined by Rambam, Rabbeinu Yonah, and others, there is a typical rhythm to repairs in relationships. Ideally, one makes a repair first by recognizing that one has done wrong and apologizing. Then, one can do his or her best to fix what has been damaged, if possible. Finally, a true reconciliation and reconnection can occur when the person who has erred demonstrates authentic, lasting behavior change. If we have ever been in little Johnny’s position, we know that these steps are crucial to maintaining connections when we’ve behaved in a way that may have threatened our relationships.
And, those of us who have been on the receiving end of repairs or apologies must recognize that we, too, have an important role to play. As leaders, parents, teachers, friends, or partners, we are all in positions to raise someone up or cause them to hang their heads in shame when they have made mistakes. Wherever possible, it is in our best interest to try to help others feel valued and loved, even when they’ve erred. We can help others to make a full repair by telling them what we need them to do differently and giving them a chance to come through and contribute in a way that is commensurate with whatever damage has been done. When they turn to us with authentic remorse and resolve to do better, we can lift them up through eye contact, warm and open body language, sitting with them and showing them we are not just walking away once they’ve cleaned up their mess. And, we can give them a map for how to improve and what to do better next time.
This week, let us take a look at where we stand in our relationships. If we have caused any damage or hurt, how can we make a repair? If we have been hurt or wronged and believe that the relationship can be salvaged, can we give others a chance to fix or address what’s gone wrong? And, if and when a repair has been made, let us try our best to emulate Hakadosh Baruch Hu and not leave it there, but further provide an opportunity for those we love to feel respected, seen, and wanted, allowing them to return to the relationship with their heads held high.