The Butcher and the Bone (Or When NOT to Say, “I’m Sorry”


There are more people who won’t talk to me – nay look at me – than I care to think.  Truth be told, even one is too many.  No?  Well I have a handful.  But not for lack of trying to repair the breeches.  I’ve apologized.  In one case, make that fourteen conciliation attempts.  Now it wouldn’t be nice if I just blurted out and told you everything.  So I’m going to knead these women up into one person.  I’ll call her…I’m tempted to say “Pinkellafant”, akin to the proverbial white elephant we allow to sit on the living room rug while we peek round its chunky hips and make pleasant conversation.  But that doesn’t feel comfortable.  You see, I really like her.  For all the cold shoulders, I do.  So I’ll call her Penelope instead.

We were friends for over a decade.

On the evening of our fall out, I needed to get out of the house for a bit.  The apartment felt sticky to my soul.  “Penelope!” I thought, and off I went.  Outside it was even stickier but at least there was space.  On my way across the street, a cop car idled by and pulled into action just behind my shoulder.  The siren hit me with a slap.  Maybe I should have paid attention and gone indoors.  But I just kept right on walking.  I knocked on Penny’s door.  No answer.  I knocked again.  No-one.  So I called her on the cell.  Often she’d be playing music in the back of the house and not hear the bell.

“WHAT!” she barked.

That’s the way she’d been picking up of late.  Stressed, feeling down.  I mostly let it ride.  Just walked straight past the “what!” right into the relationship, like a guest missing her queue at the door.  But that night was different.  I was feeling too vulnerable to push past.

“Uh.  It’s okay.  Nothing.”



“It’s okay Penny.  Nothing.”

“Why d’you ring?”

“Listen, I can’t talk.  I just have to go.”

“Don’t hang up!”

“I’m not.  I just have to go.”


“Listen, I can’t talk.  Everythings OK.  I have to put the phone down…”

At the bottom of the brownstone steps lay leftovers from someone’s Wendy’s dinner.  The cops and a crowd were gathered at the corner.  It was too many lights and sounds for 9:30pm.  I sat down against the low wall outside our building where grass from the garden offered fragrant relief.

On the corner, I saw Penny.  She was advancing towards me with the same force she puts out on her evening route round the park.

“What’s going on!?” she demanded.  Her concern was spiked with anger.

“I told you.  I’m okay.”

“I came all the way over.”

“Penny, now’s not the time.”

Her mix of anger and concern was shifting with each push to talk and each “not now” I countered with.

“I left what I was doing…”

“It’s okay, you can go back to it.  We’ll talk another time.”

Penny spun round and walked away.  “I’ll call her from the cab on my way to the airport,” I thought as I watched her go.  But she called first.  She called minutes after I discovered that both my driver’s license and passport were misplaced along with $500 to boot!

“Penny, I was just about to call you.  Can’t find my license.  My ride’s waiting downstairs.  I’ll be in the cab in a few minutes.  Will call you then…”

My check, license and passport were still nowhere to be found and I was relying on some miracle to get past security at the airport.  Mine was not what one would call an elegant state of mind.  As soon as we pulled away from the curb, I called Penelope.  But by the time I dialed, it was too late.  I left numerous messages that Sunday.  And I apologized when I met her on the street Monday morning.

“I want to apologize for having hurt you,” I said.

The road to reconciliation was closed and despite calls, a letter, more calls, an invitation that she join me for lunch, going over there…well, other than a hello, or a sentence about nothing squeezed out of air; that was the last we spoke to each other.

As the expression goes, “It blows my mind!”

Each time something like this happens, I find myself confused and in pain.  I’ve been told I’ve apologized too soon, that I needed to “let the bird sit on the egg.”  I’ve apologized too late, in the wrong way, I should try again, or let it go, or I didn’t apologize at all because my words were “I want to apologize”.  There seems to be an art to this and it sure is one I don’t have the knack for!  I’m left muddling over whether it’s only me, and how much of this is about her.  Here’s a journal entry from my diary of a few weeks back:

Penny’s husband advised that I send yet another email.  This is where I’m at though.  I’ve spent many years apologizing to people for things that were not bad or mean acts.  They were mistakes or decisions that others disagreed with…

Maybe I’m sick?  All this running to fix things up.  Does it stem from low self-esteem and feeling that the other is correct in refusing to forgive me?  The relationship has always been more important to me than who’s right or wrong.  At least that’s what I think. If I’ve shared what hurt me and inadvertently caused pain, or allowed myself to not be “on” in a dynamic, I made a mistake yes, but is that something for which I should not be spoken to for months, years, a decade!  Where does one go when the response to an apology is, “Forget about it!  It’s passed” – when in reality it’s the relationship, not the tension, that has come to an abrupt halt?  If our relationship was so fragile that I couldn’t share my experience of what-is, was there really one to talk of?  The question I ask myself is, “Has it been holy or unhealthy behavior that has driven me for years to ask Penelope for forgiveness?”

I’m fully aware that one need only ask for forgiveness three times.  It’s Jewish to forgive.  That’s one of our distinguishing traits.  The sages tell us that G-d expects us to say, “It’s okay.  Let’s move on.”  And to then really do that!  I’m also aware that it’s noble to keep on trying and to go beyond the letter of the law when someone can’t forgive.  But is persevering with an apology ever undesirable.

I need to figure out the meaning of a story in the Talmud.  Here it is:

Rav had a complaint against a certain butcher.  When the butcher did not come to him on the eve of Yom Kippur to ask his forgiveness, he said, “I’ll go to him and calm him down.”

Rav Huna met him on his way there and asked, “Where are you going?”

He replied, “To soothe the butcher.”

“You will cause his death.  He should be mollifying you.  He will be punished on account of your degrading yourself.”

But Rav went anyway.  When he arrived, the butcher was sitting and chopping the head of an animal.  Rav stood next to him.  The butcher raised his eyes and saw him.

“You are Abba,” he said with contempt, addressing the sage by his first name.  “Go away!  I will have nothing to do with you!”

While he was chopping the head, a bone jumped off, stuck in his throat, and killed him.

Some story.

Who’s culpable?  Rav or the Butcher.  Rav Huna warns the former, “Don’t go.  It’s not the time.  Your attempt is going to backfire, and with disastrous consequences.”  But he goes anyway.  Sooooo, if Penelope was not ready, I should have “sat on the eggs” – just as her husband suggested!  When I rush head-on into an attempt at resolution and make things worse by forcing the situation, then who’s to blame?  I ponder, and rest much of it on my shoulders.

But the butcher had his issues too, to say the least.  It was the eve of Yom Kippur and he was sitting chopping the head of an animal.  Can you see it?  Everyone else is dressing in white, going to the mikva, thinking of mending things, and there he sits with his butcher’s knife chopping at the head of a beast.  I’m not pointing fingers.  I do that too.  Obsess over what’s gone wrong and indulge in grievance that is.  But a couple of hours before the Day of Atonement?!  When Rav walks in, you stand up.  You wipe your hands and say, “I’m sorry.”

Both felt wronged.  Ditto with Penelope and me.  Her sister later told me I’d, “Slammed the phone down on her and essentially told her to ‘get lost.’”  That was her reality.  For my part, I felt let down by a friend and pushed to the limits of comfort when she wasn’t there at the time I needed her; and then demanded that I open up when she was ready but I wasn’t.

I’m not playing Rav and putting her in the role of the butcher.  Not at all.  I myself am “Rav” and the “butcher.”  I pushed too hard for reconciliation.  And I’m choking on my own bone.  Stuck in my throat, plugging my life force is the desire that there be peace.  It sounds like a noble ideal but m-a-y-b-e it’s just my ego.  As I asked, has my pursuit of peace been coming from a holy or selfish place?  That’s my question this eve of Yom Kippur.  If I send Penelope just one more birthday gift, just one more bunch of flowers, or email, if I call again, then I run the risk of standing at the door of her discontent and being party to her gagging on her own negative feelings.

So I say to myself, I think this Yom Kippur, I’m going to sit tight.  I’m going to listen to Rav Huna and a different voice within.  I’m going to draw the arrow backwards with the intention of shooting it forwards.  My sense is that my yearning for harmony is largely about wanting to appear to others and myself as a “good person.”  Well it’s time to let that go.  The Work in this moment is to just do my next best effort and let-others-live. 

So Penelope, if you’d prefer to hack at a grievance, then go ahead.  And if you want to tell me the conflict’s all over, that there are no pink elephants in the room or gripes on the table, then so be it.  My sense that I can change your way of being in the world is a delusion.  I want to wear white (at least I’m going to give it a shot) and leave you be.  Let’s do things on your timetable for a change.  This Yom Kippur I’m going to try spending the day confessing my own sins and not worrying if you have any.  And maybe I’ll look up from my prayer book after a moment of intense concentration to find you beside me, and you’ll say, “Shana Tova.”  To you too my friend.

But instead, I ignore the voice of Rav Huna. Call it co-dependency, call it lack of self-esteem, or call it anything else. I have to ignore the labels. Because just maybe my impulse to call is a real desire for peace and it’s hidden inside those cloaks. So I pick up the phone to call “Penelope.” I find it a more compelling notion than the thought that there’s ever a time not to say, “I’m sorry.”

p.s. This piece was written a while ago.  I’m going to give you the post script on this evening’s Kabbalah Class Teleseminar.  You can sign up here if you want.  In the meantime, climb in to the fray.  I’d love to know your thoughts.

This article was originally published on  Thank you Sarah Esther, my dear friend and editor for getting me to put some of what’s in my head into print.

Transformation Through Fear

Seven Habits of Transformation, Part II

By Shimona Tzukernik

It happened on a Saturday night. My close friend and I had been out for the evening and were returning back to my apartment. When I pulled in front of the building, there was a parking spot directly opposite the entrance. Not bad for New York!

She needed to make a phone call so I told her to just run into the building while I parked the car.

All I did was angle back into the space, gather my purse and close the side mirror. No dawdling. But by the time I arrived upstairs, my husband had already called the police. On her way up the garden path, a drunk hiding in the bushes had tried to grab her.

She pushed him away, buzzed frantically, run into the building locking him out and then jumped up the five flights of stairs to our apartment.

The police came but the lowlife had taken off leaving only a bottle of gin behind.

We later discovered that that night in South Africa both my brother-in-laws and a bunch of nephews were held up at gunpoint on their way home from synagogue. One was made to lie face down on the ground with a gun to his neck. Miraculously no-one was physically harmed.

Hearing the news of their ordeal gave me the chills. I couldn’t help wondering if the attack on my friend in New York had taken the edge off any greater hurt to my family across the ocean.

While my friend’s initial shock subsided, she was left fearful of going out alone, especially in the evening. I encouraged her to “just try it,” knowing she needed to make the shift. But she wasn’t ready. Then one day, whilst working on a script for a childrens CD, I was reminded of a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement.

His parents were childless for many years and Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem was born to them in their old age. But when he was only five, his father took ill.

The little boy was summoned to his father’s bedside. His father then shared with him what was to become the holy Baal Shem’s mission statement.

“Yisrael, my beloved son, remember these two things your entire life. Firstly, fear no one, nothing of this world. Fear only Gd, the Gd of heaven and earth. Secondly, love every single Jew with all your heart and soul.”

And then he was gone.

As I worked on the script with a friend, I knew I had an answer for my friend. That evening I shared with her the following thought. Gd has given us a vast and subtle array of emotional abilities. In grade school we’re taught the basics are “mad, sad, glad…” I forget the rest. The real life list goes on and on.

From the perspective of Kabbalah, we have six core emotions, the most fundamental of which are love, respect and empathy. And although we may experience some more than others, we’re assured of one thing: if our Creator put the emotion into the world, we’re going to feel it sooner or later!

Gd created many feelings. There’s no way to go through life without experiencing them. You’re never going to be able to escape jealousy, anger, desire, feeling small. The secret is to have those feelings play themselves out over the chords of your Gdly soul.

The same applies to the attribute of gevurah, fear. It’s coming your way no matter what. The only thing you get to choose is in which context you’ll feel it. Gd wants you to fear Him. What that really means is He wants you to appreciate His greatness and minimize your sense of being independent of Him. You can choose to reject this fear of Gd – in which case you’ll fear everything else.

People all over the world do that every day. They’re afraid of not having enough money, of missing the bus, of speaking in public. Instead of letting go to the One who created everything, they somehow think it’s a safer bet to take things into their own hands and manage their lives ‘independently.’ But that leads to fear-driven behavior. At the highest level of the chain we could call that neurotic behavior – putting our real fears into things like the bus and having to give a presentation at work. Down the chain there are states like anxiety disorder…paranoia…a whole slew of painful ways to live.

Your other choice is to fear Gd. If that’s your guiding light, you’ll be freed of all other anxiety! I don’t mean to say you shouldn’t be responsible and cautious where necessary. What I am saying is that when you experience healthy fear, or awe, then your other worries dissipate and disappear.”

She got it. The story of the Baal Shem Tov was the segue for her to venture out on the streets alone.

This basic element of fear or awe can also be framed as hatred or opposition. It doesn’t only function in isolation but plays itself out together with all our other emotional attributes. Take it in combo with love for example.

The animal soul loves selfish pleasure and gratification, the Gdly soul loves – well Gd, and goodness and truth.

Fear within love then is the extreme dislike of your beloved’s enemy. In unholy form that means you hate anyone or thing that stands in the way of getting what you want. Maybe you hate the laws of keeping kosher because they deny your palette the cheeseburger it craves, or the person who stands for truth when you want to live in denial.

At the bottom of the barrel, this hatred born of love manifests as resentment of Torah and even of Gd Himself. After all, He’s the one standing between you and the object of your desire. Gd is the one who requires of you to relinquish your ego, and none of us is giving it up too quickly.

Its holy form is a resistance to anything that obstructs Gd’s presence being revealed in the world. In other words, it’s a hatred of evil because evil opposes Gdliness. When experienced strongly, this fear within love prompts us to action on behalf of what is holy and good and true.

America has been described as “a land of loving-kindness.” It was founded on the principles of sanctity of life, a right to freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Its democratic constitution has drawn immigrants from the world over and for the large part they’ve been welcomed and treated with fairness. With that cultural underpinning, fear is somewhat of a dirty word to our ears. It brings to mind oppression, estrangement, abuse.

Sometimes this is accurate. Animalistic behavior that intimidates others brings all these in its wake. However there’s the Gdly side of the coin. Whereas love is expansive, fear is contractive. We need both impulses – sugar and salt, attraction and repulsion, connection and boundaries.

Life without boundaries or awe would overpower and destroy us. Think of rain. The blessing of water falling to earth allows us to live but if it came down in sheets, all growing things would die. We need the spaces between the water that form raindrops. Those spaces are a metaphor for the Kabbalistic attribute of gevurah – or awe, fear, respect, discipline, opposition.

We need to temper our love and passion. If not, we’re likely to steamroll others with our emotions and not allow them space to be themselves. We run the risk of tripping over our own feet in the heat of our passion and vision for a better tomorrow. The blessing of rain is in the spaces.

When we incorporate restraint into our lives (whether its origin is fear, awe, respect or opposition,) we counter-intuitively open another realm of possibility and actually enhance our loving connections. Certainly unholy fear is to be avoided at all costs but holy awe and respect is to be embraced. It frees us of our neuroses and creates the space for love to flourish.

When my friend was attacked, I was irate at the landlord. I called to let him know what happened and ask if he could cut away those unkempt bushes that form an apology for a “garden.” His response was, “Ma’am I’m not responsible for every quack in the city and there’s a law against cutting down trees in this country!”

Slam. Conversation over.

Was that hatred born of unhealthy love or just plain hatred born of hatred? I’m not sure. The bushes are still there, a sculptural reminder of a lesson learned. They gave me and my friend the opportunity to explore the full spectrum of a feeling we tend to reject, and more healthfully incorporate contraction into our relationships. I guess the bushes gave us rain.

This article was origionally posted on