I have an ethical quandary concerning hurt feelings. My fiancée and I were due to be married this summer by our temple's rabbi, who had agreed last autumn to perform the service. Early this spring, our rabbi announced that he was taking a yearlong sabbatical and called my parents to apologize for not being able to officiate. Although we have since found another rabbi, and the wedding will proceed, I find myself beset by hard feeling towards our previous rabbi. What upsets me is that he never called us personally to apologize, although he had spoken with us personally when he agreed to perform the ceremony. I'm also finding myself less receptive to what he says in his sermons and writings. How can I get over this?"
--Angry and Hurt
Dear Angry and Hurt,
Boy, is my face red. I thank you for your sensitivity in writing in the third person about the rabbi who disappointed you, but I realized by the end of the first paragraph that the culprit was me. For this I humbly apologize. Your letter made me aware of my insensitivity in not contacting you directly. Indeed, your letter contains two important moral lessons, one obvious, one more subtle.
First, in a situation in which someone will be disappointed, one must think through very carefully the people who will be affected by one's behavior and make sure to be in contact with each of them directly. This is not just an issue of good manners; because people's feelings are involved, it becomes a moral issue as well. I've often spoken of exercising "moral imagination," which means that one should use the full range of one's intellect not only to avoid inflicting obvious hurts, but less obvious ones as well. In your case, it was your mother who originally called to ask me to perform the wedding, and hers was the only number in my diary. So when I realized that I would not be able to perform the wedding, she was the person I called. Moral imagination dictates that I should have realized this would not be sufficient--it is your wedding, and the event is understandably very important to you. In most cases, hurt feelings can be avoided or minimized by being in touch directly with the involved party.
The less obvious moral lesson in your letter was the fact that you wrote it at all. When one has a grievance against someone, it's best to tell that person directly rather than simply complaining about it to others. Most people do just the opposite--they don't contact the person they're angry with, but instead share their annoyance with others, injuring the reputation of the person who has offended them and never coming to a satisfying closure. I am therefore grateful that you contacted me directly.
This situation reminded me of an incident that happened several years ago. A reader took strong exception to something I had written in a book about a specific Jewish teaching. He obtained my phone number and called me up, respectfully but firmly asking me to explain my position. After I did so, it was clear that he still disagreed with me. But at least he realized that I had not taken that position out of malicious intent. Had he instead spent time condemning my teachings to others, he would not only have damaged my name, he probably would have ended up feeling much worse about me, attributing to me bad motives as well as an incorrect analysis.
As regards your hurt feelings, I hope you realize that my apology is heartfelt and that you can fully forgive me. I am reminded of William Blake's old quatrain:
I was angry with my friend
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And finally, I wish you a happy marriage, one in which your honesty and openness with your spouse will lead to a lifetime of bliss and mutual understanding.
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Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.