Creating a Society of Accountability and Forgiveness

By Rav Mordecai Burg

Robert Sarver, owner of the NBA Phoenix Suns and the WNBA Phoenix Mercury, has announced his plans to sell both teams after the NBA fined him ten million dollars and suspended him for one year. Last November, an ESPN article alleged that Sarver had engaged in racist and misogynistic behaviors during his tenure as the franchise owner. A recent NBA investigation corroborated the report. Prominent NBA players were furious with what they deemed a light punishment. They called for Sarver to be permanently removed from the league. Phoenix Suns jersey sponsor PayPal announced their intentions to pull their sponsorship if Sarver remained an owner. Minority owner and Phoenix Suns vice chairman Jahm Najafi called Sarver to resign, saying there should be “zero tolerance” for lewd, misogynistic, and racist conduct in any workplace.

In the letter declaring his intent to sell the teams, Sarver wrote, “As a man of faith, I believe in atonement and the path to forgiveness. I expected that the commissioner’s one-year suspension would provide the time for me to focus, make amends and remove my personal controversy from the teams that I and so many fans love. But in our current unforgiving climate, it has become painfully clear that that is no longer possible – that whatever good I have done, or could still do, is outweighed by things I have said in the past. For those reasons, I am beginning the process of seeking buyers for the Suns and Mercury.”

Sarver’s response calls out a society that he claims is unforgiving and allows for no path to forgiveness. In calling for stricter punishment, Sarver’s opponents claim they are merely holding him accountable for his despicable actions.

Timely issues ought to be seen through the lens of timeless Torah values. Having completed a meaningful Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Aseres Yemei Teshuva, and Yom Kippur, and as we stand on the precipice of what will hopefully be a joyous Succos, this seems like an appropriate time to talk about how we as a society can hold people accountable and create a culture of compassion.

Enveloped in Hashem’s Hug

The minimum requirement for the walls of a Sukkah is two complete walls and a third wall that may be as little as one handbreadth long (Sukkah 6b; Rambam Hilchot Sukkah 4:2; Tur and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim section 630). Every minute aspect of halacha contains infinite meaning. What is the inner significance of this halacha? The Arizal and the Alter Rebbe (Pri Eitz Chaim Shaar Chag Hasukkos chapter 4. Likkutei Torah Derushim LeSukkot pp. 78-79; 82d; 84a-b; 87a. Cf. Ohr Hatorah Derushim LeSukkot pp. 1762-3) see this halacha through the prism of the pasuk in Shir HaShirim (2:6) which says, “His left arm lay under my head and His right arm embraces me.” (2:6) During the Yamim Noraim (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) Hashem’s left arm, representing introspection, discipline, and judgment, lays under the head of the Jewish people. Succos is “the time of our joy.” Appropriately, it is a time when “Hashem’s right arm embraces me.” Our arm is divided into three distinct sections; the shoulder to the elbow, the elbow to the wrist, and the wrist to the edge of the fingers. The Succah’s two-and-a-half walls represent Hashem’s right arm embracing us. The first complete wall represents the shoulder to the elbow, and the second whole wall represents the elbow to the wrist. The third smaller wall (minimally a handbreadth long) represents the wrist to the end of the fingertips. Sitting in the Sukkah, we are literally being hugged by Hashem Yisbarach.

The Chassidic masters explain that in contrast to other expressions of love where a person can turn away, when we are given a hug, we are “trapped” in Hashem’s loving embrace. There is a biblical promise that if we do Teshuva, Hashem will forgive us on Yom Kippur. On this day [Yom Kippur], He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before G‑d, you shall be cleansed from all your sins (Vayikra 16:30). The question is not if Hashem will forgive us but if we believe He has forgiven us. A wife may tell her husband that she has forgiven him. Still, it takes time for the relationship to be restored to its ordinary course. Regardless of any assurances made, the husband may wonder if the wife still harbors secret resentment in her heart. After Yom Kippur, we may intellectually know that Hashem has forgiven us. Still, somewhere in our hearts, we wonder how this can possibly be true. Hashem knows that this coming year we will indeed still transgress. Are we really forgivable? If the goal of the Yamim Noraim is to restore our innocence, then the loving embrace of the Succah is a fundamental part of the Teshuva process. We are trapped in Hashem’s hug. The feeling we must have upon entering the Succah is that Hashem will not let us turn away from Him. We have been completely forgiven. The relationship has been restored. Only through the mechanism of the Succah can we once again feel completely innocent.

Until this point, we have portrayed Succos as the culmination of the Teshuva process, but I would like to humbly suggest that it is just the opposite. Succos creates the context for the entire Teshuva season. Teshuva is a profoundly vulnerable process. Admitting our mistakes, recognizing the pain we have caused, and deciding to reorient our lives take massive amounts of courage. We cannot hold people accountable without a core sense of worth and belonging. Feedback is seen as an attack. Examining our misdeeds collapses our self-worth. The knowledge that we are in a relationship with a compassionate God who stands ready to forgive creates the necessary safety for us to engage the vulnerability of Teshuva. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “God’s forgiveness allows us to be honest with ourselves. We recognize our imperfections, admit our failures, and plead to God for clemency.” Succos allows us to feel guilt and regret – I have done something bad, not shame – I am bad (I am unworthy of love and connection because of my actions). We are being held accountable for our sins precisely because this relationship is important to Him. Hashem’s hug is a statement that we are not defined by our worst moments. That our self-worth is not predicated on our actions but on our being. We are a Godly soul that remains pure despite our many missteps. In the context of Succos, the accountability of the Yamim Noraim is not an act of condemnation but of love.

Creating a Culture of Accountability

We live in a culture that confuses shaming and accountability. Shaming is attacking the person. Accountability is holding people responsible for their actions. Shaming is hurtful. Accountability is painful. Shaming is cruel. Accountability is compassionate. Shaming is speaking from your pain, pouring out your emotions on another. Accountability is speaking for your pain, owning your emotions, and speaking in a way that allows others to hear you. Shaming is dehumanizing; it drives destructive behaviors. Accountability is empowering; it conveys a sense of debt and responsibility. Shaming is fearful. Accountability is courageous. Shaming is toxic; it destroys people and relationships. Accountability is healthy; it restores people and relationships. Most importantly, shaming is debilitating; it does not create change. Accountability is motivating; it creates the opportunity for change.

Accountability is subtle, nuanced, and complex. We must hold people responsible for their actions and be compassionate. We can call them out for their behavior without belittling them as people. They are not defined by their worst moments. Here is what we need to say. What you did was wrong. This is the pain you’ve caused. These are the consequences of your actions. The language must be direct and respectful. In so doing we have communicated to them that change is possible. It creates space for people to own their mistakes and make amends. Shaming people like Sarver allows them to shift the focus away from their wrongdoings and onto those who are shaming. When we hold people accountable, we keep the narrative where it should be. When we give appropriate consequences, we create healthy boundaries. We teach people not to dismiss the pain they have caused.

Robert Sarver hurt people. When influential people act like Sarver, they erode trust everywhere. A healthy society must hold people like Sarver accountable. Sarver says he is selling the team because we live in an unforgiving culture. If Sarver is the man of faith he claims to be then he ought to use this as an opportunity to do sincere Teshuva. Men of faith courageously examine their origin story and understand how they came to cause this pain. Men of faith acknowledge their mistakes and take full responsibility. Men of faith empathize with those they have hurt so that they can truly come to understand the pain they have caused. Men of faith make sincere apologies, work to repair the damage they have caused, and to regain trust. Men of faith do not weaponize forgiveness. They do not talk about the responsibility for others to forgive them before they have earned atonement. That is selfish behavior. 

And yet, we as a society (not Sarver) ought to examine ourselves and ask if we have created a culture of accountability or shame. When we call people like Sarver a racist and a misogynist, do we mean that as a noun or an adjective? Are we saying that Sarver’s actions are reprehensible or that he is evil? People will always make mistakes. Sometimes bad ones. People will get hurt. Do we truly believe in rehabilitation? That despite their misdeeds, these people are still worthy of love and connection? Or are we just trying to exact a pound of flesh? If we identify people by their behavior, we cannot ask them to change. We have told them who they are. We have disempowered them from making better decisions.

Consider the following story. Lazar Kaganovich was known as Stalin’s right-hand and can be counted among the most horrific mass murderers of the 20th century. When Israel Singer, longtime secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, mentioned to the Lubavitcher Rebbe that Lazar Kaganovitch still lives, the Rebbe asked, “Is he doing teshuvah?” That the Rebbe had first-hand experience with men like Kaganovich, his own father had been brutally tortured by Stalin’s henchmen, makes it even more amazing that the Rebbe still had hope that Kaganovich might to do Teshuva. But Singer replied that from the looks of Kaganovich’s penthouse apartment and his status in the Communist Party, there did not seem to be any signs of Teshuva. The Rebbe took a moment to absorb that before commenting, “But you never know, maybe he’ll repent. When you go back the next time, you should tell him he should still do teshuvah, he still has a chance.”

Kaganovich was guilty of crimes far worse than Robert Sarver and yet the Rebbe believed that Teshuva was possible. It is clear that to the Rebbe, even a man who has committed unfathomable atrocities, is not defined by his actions. There is an unbreakable pintele Yid even in the greatest sinner that makes Teshuva a possibility. In sending a message to Kaganovich that Teshuva was still possible the Rebbe was holding Kaganovich responsible for his crimes and empowering him to change. Total accountability; zero shame. This is the type of society we ought to create. 

To Forgive Is Divine 

Of course, there will always be situations where we cannot allow people back into our lives for safety’s sake. Only Hashem, the Knower of secrets, can testify to what goes on inside a person’s heart. We cannot know if a person has truly done Teshuva. Thus, in cases of abuse and the like, out of an abundance of caution, we must protect ourselves and the ones we love. (see Yoma 87a, Shulchan Aruch HaRav 606:4) Often, cases are not that extreme. And if someone is a sincere penitent, we must forgive them. Consider the words of the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 2:9.10):

אֵין הַתְּשׁוּבָה וְלֹא יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפְּרִין אֶלָּא עַל עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם כְּגוֹן מִי שֶׁאָכַל דָּבָר אָסוּר אוֹ בָּעַל בְּעִילָה אֲסוּרָה וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן. אֲבָל עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ כְּגוֹן הַחוֹבֵל אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ אוֹ הַמְקַלֵּל חֲבֵרוֹ אוֹ גּוֹזְלוֹ וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן אֵינוֹ נִמְחַל לוֹ לְעוֹלָם עַד שֶׁיִּתֵּן לַחֲבֵרוֹ מַה שֶּׁהוּא חַיָּב לוֹ וִירַצֵּהוּ. אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהֶחֱזִיר לוֹ מָמוֹן שֶׁהוּא חַיָּב לוֹ צָרִיךְ לְרַצּוֹתוֹ וְלִשְׁאל מִמֶּנּוּ שֶׁיִּמְחל לוֹ. אֲפִלּוּ לֹא הִקְנִיט אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ אֶלָּא בִּדְבָרִים צָרִיךְ לְפַיְּסוֹ וְלִפְגֹּעַ בּוֹ עַד שֶׁיִּמְחל לוֹ. לֹא רָצָה חֲבֵרוֹ לִמְחל לוֹ מֵבִיא לוֹ שׁוּרָה שֶׁל שְׁלֹשָׁה בְּנֵי אָדָם מֵרֵעָיו וּפוֹגְעִין בּוֹ וּמְבַקְּשִׁין מִמֶּנּוּ. לֹא נִתְרַצָּה לָהֶן מֵבִיא לוֹ שְׁנִיָּה וּשְׁלִישִׁית. לֹא רָצָה מְנִיחוֹ וְהוֹלֵךְ לוֹ וְזֶה שֶׁלֹּא מָחַל הוּא הַחוֹטֵא. וְאִם הָיָה רַבּוֹ הוֹלֵךְ וּבָא אֲפִלּוּ אֶלֶף פְּעָמִים עַד שֶׁיִּמְחל לוֹ:

Teshuvah and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between man and God; for example, a person who ate forbidden food or engaged in forbidden sexual relations, and the like. However, sins between man and man; for example, someone who injures a colleague, curses a colleague, steals from him, or the like will never be forgiven until he gives his colleague what he owes him and appeases him.

It must be emphasized that] even if a person restores the money that he owes [the person he wronged], he must appease him and ask him to forgive him.

Even if a person only upset a colleague by saying [certain] things, he must appease him and approach him [repeatedly] until he forgives him.

If his colleague does not desire to forgive him, he should bring a group of three of his friends and approach him with them and request [forgiveness]. If [the wronged party] is not appeased, he should repeat the process a second and third time. If he [still] does not want [to forgive him], he may let him alone and need not pursue [the matter further]. On the contrary, the person who refuses to grant forgiveness is considered a sinner.

[The above does not apply] if [the wronged party] was one’s teacher. [In that instance,] a person should continue seeking his forgiveness, even a thousand times until he forgives him.

אָסוּר לָאָדָם לִהְיוֹת אַכְזָרִי וְלֹא יִתְפַּיֵּס אֶלָּא יְהֵא נוֹחַ לִרְצוֹת וְקָשֶׁה לִכְעֹס וּבְשָׁעָה שֶׁמְּבַקֵּשׁ מִמֶּנּוּ הַחוֹטֵא לִמְחל מוֹחֵל בְּלֵב שָׁלֵם וּבְנֶפֶשׁ חֲפֵצָה. וַאֲפִלּוּ הֵצֵר לוֹ וְחָטָא לוֹ הַרְבֵּה לֹא יִקֹּם וְלֹא יִטֹּר. וְזֶהוּ דַּרְכָּם שֶׁל זֶרַע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלִבָּם הַנָּכוֹן. אֲבָל הָעוֹבְדֵי כּוֹכָבִים עַרְלֵי לֵב אֵינָן כֵּן אֶלָּא (וְעֶבְרָתָן) [וְעֶבְרָתוֹ] שְׁמָרָה נֶצַח. וְכֵן הוּא אוֹמֵר עַל הַגִּבְעוֹנִים לְפִי שֶׁלֹּא מָחֲלוּ וְלֹא נִתְפַּיְּסוּ וְהַגִּבְעֹנִים לֹא מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה:

It is forbidden for man to be ill-natured and unforgiving, for he must be easily appeased but slow to wrath. When a sinner implores him for pardon, he should grant him pardon wholeheartedly and soulfully. Even if one persecuted him and sinned against him exceedingly, he should not be vengeful and grudge-bearing, for such is the path of the seed of Israel and of their excellent heart. In contrast, the insensitive gentiles do not act in this manner. Rather, their wrath is preserved forever. Similarly, because the Gibeonites did not forgive and refused to be appeased, [II Samuel 21:2] describes them as follows: “The Gibeonites are not among the children of Israel.”

Like any other muscle, forgiveness requires daily exercise. It is not always readily available to us and is often a complex process. The Arizal (Sefer Etz Chaim, Shaar Kerias Shema al hamita, ch. 2) says that before we retire for the night we should utter a declaration forgiving anyone who has offended us (see Megillah 28a – Mar Zutra used to offer the following prayer before going to sleep: ‘I forgive all those who pained me’). Yes, when confronted by a sincere penitent, forgiveness is obvious. They are no longer the same person who hurt you. But what can we do when we are concerned about the sincerity of those asking mechila? Are we still obligated to forgive?

Forgiveness is not acting as if you were not hurt; it requires a recognition that something hurtful happened. Forgiveness does not condone the pain you were caused. It does not necessarily mean that you need to trust the offending party. First and foremost, forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself. As the famous saying goes, “resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” You may still be hurt, and that’s ok. It takes time to heal. Forgiveness frees up space for healing to occur. It restores our peace so that we can tend to our wounds. It allows us to move on. Those stuck in resentment are still at the mercy of the perpetrator. Forgiveness is a way of reclaiming your life as you are no longer consumed by the pain the other person has caused you. Secondly, forgiveness is a form of death. We can grieve what was and allow for the possibility of rebirth. Forgiveness creates space for change. Something new can emerge. Maybe something better. Maybe something different. On a personal level, we can allow relationships to evolve or to begin new ones altogether. On a societal level, it allows for new systems to emerge. For leaders who made mistakes to do Teshuva and in turn to inspire others to do the same.

Judaism imagines a society where people are held accountable for their actions, not defined by them. A society that stands ready to accept the sincere Baal Teshuva with an open heart. We are obligated to act as God would act. Just as Hashem is merciful so too we are called upon to be merciful (Sotah 14a, Sifrei Parshas Eikev 49, Rambam Hilchos Deos 1:6). To once again quote Rabbi Sacks, “God, who created the universe in love and forgiveness, reaches out to us in love and forgiveness, asking us to love and forgive others.” 

As we sit in the Succah enveloped by Hashem’s warm embrace, let us consider how we can do the same for those sincere Baalei Teshuva who have caused us pain. And in that merit, may we merit to sit in the Succah of Dovid Malchusa Meshicha speedily in our days!

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