04/12/2013 10:40 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2013

From Affliction to Joy on Facebook

The dual Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora pose a challenge every year to rabbis and teachers. How are we to make sense of skin diseases and "icky," moldy stuff in houses and on clothes that Kohanim (priests) are called upon to diagnose and cleanse? How can we possibly apply this arcane portion of Leviticus to contemporary life? The rabbis of 2,000 years ago struggled with these same questions and produced some of the most beautiful and profound midrash in all of rabbinic literature. They connect physical affliction to the problems of human behavior. They read skin disease as a metaphor for slander that must be expunged from the community. One of the sources for this connection is Miriam, who is described in Numbers 12 as gossiping about Moses and suffering a divinely induced skin ailment as punishment.

Rabbi Arthur Green offers a mystical interpretation on expunging affliction from our lives: "The goal [is] the transformation of "naga" (affliction) to "oneg" (joy). Both of these Hebrew words use the same three letters, nun, gimel, ayin, but in differing order. Our task in life is to convert affliction into joy."

I recently was blessed with such an experience.

A few days ago, I was rushing to get the table set and dinner served. In a brief free moment before I called the family to the table, I checked my Facebook account. Then, my jaw dropped; I froze. I couldn't believe the friend request that I had just received. It was from a guy with whom I grew up and attended grammar school and high school. I love Facebook, particularly as a means for reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances from years before with whom I had otherwise fallen out of touch. Normally, when I get such a friend request, I accept it instantly. I didn't in this case. This friend request was not benign. In fact, my memories of time I spent with this person during childhood were less than positive. Still, I hadn't seen him in nearly a quarter- century. Like me, he had grown up and had a family and career. Surely, he wasn't the same person I remembered from young boyhood. In weighing whether or not to accept this friend request, I decided I had to write to him. I couldn't just accept his friend request as if nothing had happened. I had to know that past issues, even from more than 30 years ago, were resolved. After some opening pleasantries, I wrote the following (edited excerpt):

"Before I broadcast to the world via my 2,100 Facebook friends that you and I are 'friends,' I need to get something off my chest. This is hard to say, but since you just came back into my life, I think it's only fair to you that I say it. This may sound petty, but when we were boys I felt very insecure in your presence. [In grade school] I recall feeling verbally and at times physically threatened by you. I'm not going to go into specific incidents, and I don't think it matters. What matters is how I felt. I'm sad to say it, but when I teach my own children and students in my synagogue about bullying, the image in the deepest recesses of my mind is the memory of feeling threatened by you."

I tried my best to harness wisdom from conflict resolution and my years of rabbinic practice. I didn't want to sound accusatory. I didn't want to attack him as a person. I wanted to convey my feelings, based on the formula, "When you said/did x, I felt y." I also wanted to convey empathy for my correspondent, understanding that we weren't dealing with current events. I wrote:

"Looking back as an adult to stuff that happened as kids, I realize that it couldn't have been your entire fault. You were a kid, after all. I don't know what inner demons you were battling at the time. I certainly wasn't perfect and maybe needed to develop thicker skin. Our elementary school also did not sufficiently foster a culture of kindness and respect."

I knew I had to use the occasion of his reaching out to me to forgive him and start a new chapter. At the same time, perhaps like Joseph testing his brothers in Egypt, I craved some evidence that he had changed. I continued:

"As a rabbi, I counsel people all the time who have brothers and sisters and children and parents they haven't spoken to in decades because they refuse to forgive one another for some slight. I always encourage forgiveness because it's at least as beneficial to the person granting forgiveness as to the one forgiven. It's the release of a burden that is holding power over them. I need to release myself from that burden that has plagued me for so long. I want to do that, and yet at the same time also want to feel that you've heard me. I want to know that you understand.

I am sorry for throwing all this at you over an innocent Friend request. I apologize for holding back all these years and not trying harder to bring about healing in our relationship sooner. If you are willing to acknowledge the hurt and the insecurity that I felt in your presence when we were boys more than 30 years ago, then I not only will forgive you, I will be happy to be your friend in all senses of the term."

I hit the send button. Then I waited. The next day, I officiated at a funeral. At the cemetery, I finished the service and walked from the grave site to my car. I pulled out my phone to check my email. I saw there was a response to my Facebook message. Despite the long car ride back home ahead of me, I had to read it in full. It was a beautiful, contrite letter that was completely validating. The writer not only apologized for the way he made me feel, out of his own initiative he went on to describe in vivid, accurate, detail a specific incident from childhood in which he teased me and his deep regret over it. He concluded his letter: "I do understand. I do acknowledge. I am sorry."

I accepted his friend request.

Sitting in the cemetery, I felt I was literally burying the fear, dislike and distrust I had of this person for most of my life. It was a new chapter. I was so moved by the risk my new friend took in "friending" me, for his courage in responding to me, and for his eloquent and humble note. I said the blessing of thanksgiving: Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life and sustained us and allowed us to reach this moment. It was liberating writing back and officially forgiving him and signing off as "Your Friend."

In our fast-paced highly connected world, we see all too often abuse of the Internet as a means for wide-spread gossip, lies and hurtful behavior. Such use of the Internet is the nega, the plague or affliction of our age. How beautiful it is indeed when the energy of this powerful tool can be harnessed to promote healing and friendship. Such productive use is oneg, joy, that brings about shalom, peace and wholeness in our relationships.