I’m back after a break for the Jewish Holidays. I’ll admit that being away from this blog was quite delightful, but the call to continue is strong–so here I am. Before returning fully to the “sustainability” found out there today, I am still thinking of all the calls for cleaning up my act I heard during these days of awe.
The process of atonement and asking forgiveness is one of the most powerful moments during the ten days. The liturgy makes it easy to deal with transgressions against the Lord, whether one believes or not, but not for those against other people. The Lord simply forgives all us transgressors, but requires us to clean up, by intentional action, all the hurt and harm we have inflicted on others. The power of forgiveness to clean the slate and offer a new start to relationships is very clear. The process does not promise reciprocal behavior on the other’s part, but, no matter, frees the forgiver from the constraints on future behavior that memories of the past construct.
Closely related, I heard the yearly explanation from the Rabbi that the conventional use of “sin” for the hebrew word “chet” is slightly off the mark. The word is derived from a root meaning, ironically, off the mark or to miss the target, etc. “Chet” appears in the part of the liturgy where we count off the many ways we have missed the mark, and again ask forgiveness. It is meaningful that this prayer attributes the transgressions to the collective “we,” not to the individual “I.” It’s as if the author of this prayer understood systems theory.
The idea of missing the mark is critical in understanding the messages of these High Holidays. The focus of action keeps coming back to the actor–me. A sociologist would claim that the liturgy is all about agency, the place of will or intentionality in action. Indeed, it may be that much of the ethical basis of Judaism is all about agency. Here again, this feature comes through loud and clear in the Torah portion that is read on Yom Kippur–particularly Deuteronomy 30:19:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed;
This passage puts the place of agency in the most central possible place–life itself. I read this not as referring to biological life, but to life as lived or experienced. And wonder of wonders, this leads me right back to sustainability–the possibility of flourishing–of living fully. Only if everyone chooses to live in a way that creates flourishing might it come to be. No guarantee; it’s always only a possibility. Others can contribute by designing the artifacts of the world we live in so as to minimize the harm we inflict on all life and on the Planet itself. But whatever these others put in play, the ultimate choice comes back to each of us.
Guilt and habit make that choice difficult and painful, but the other message of the Holidays offers a way to avoid being stymied. Forgiveness can be turned inward simply by the act of forgiving oneself for the mistakes of the past–all the times the mark was missed. Indeed, it seems essential to do this as an opening to choosing life anew. The Biblical passage refers to individuals and their seed, limiting the consequences of the choice to families, but it’s only a small jump to interpret this as bearing on all life. Perhaps, knowing that we have the ability to forgive and begin again, we will commit ourselves to live differently, conscious of our connections to all life on Earth, even when we are not absolutely certain that we will hit the mark.