Wiping the Slate Clean
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 19, 1999
|La shana tovah tikatevu.|
"May you be inscribed for a good year in the Book of Life."
This is the traditional Hebrew greeting which begins the season of the Jewish High Holy days, which began last Saturday on Rosh Hashanah, and ends tomorrow on Yom Kippur. During this span of ten days, Jews around the world mark the beginning of the year 5760 in their calendar. During this period, according to Jewish tradition, God looks into our human hearts and examines both our deeds and our motives. During this time, too, we are asked to sit in judgment on ourselves, and compare our conduct during the past year with the hopes and resolutions that we have made. It is a time for fasting and penance, deep soul searching and contemplation.
But what use does it do, we may well ask? What good are these holy days, if after 5759 years of them-- all this introspection and penance and fasting and seeking atonement-- all this trying to put our acts together-- what good do they do, if after all this religious zeal-- this world of ours is still so darn messed up? Have we really made that much progress in these past 5759 years? Why bother with the ritual one more time? Does it do any good? Why bother wiping the slate clean, and pledging to begin again in love, if we're probably going to end up in the exact same place (or pretty close to it) a year from now?
Those are not bad questions to ask. And we are a questioning, honest people, and so, I'm sure we all ask them from time to time...
Once upon a time, a rabbi and one of the members of his congregation (who happened to be a soap maker) went out for a walk. And the congregant was asking his rabbi very similar questions:
"Look at the world, rabbi" the man said. "Look at all the trouble and misery in the world. It's still there, after all these years of teaching and preaching about goodness and peace and atonement. What use is faith, then, rabbi?" the man asked. "What good has it done?"
And the rabbi didn't say anything for a while, and the two men went on in silence, but then, as they walked, the rabbi noticed a young child, playing in the gutter by the side of the road.
"Look at that child," said the rabbi. "You say that soap makes people clean, but look at how filthy that boy is! What good is soap? With all the soap there is the world, why are there still so many dirty people in the world? It makes me wonder, sometimes, just how effective soap really is after all."
"But rabbi," objected the soap maker, "soap doesn't do any good unless it's used!"
"Exactly," said the rabbi. "So it is with faith."
As Charles Ortman has written:
"The holy days encourage us to remove the blinders that we normally wear. They advise us to reach beyond our sins and shortcomings, beyond the categorical thinking that allows us to see ourselves as somehow separate, over and above, not one with others. The holy days advise us to seek and admit our own lack of perfection. They also inspire us to approach anew the possibility of a greater participation in the good life that yet might be."
On the Day of Atonement, we build together the bridge of our shared imperfection, over which we can meet one another and strive to walk forward into a new year together. We re-weave the web of our deep and profound interconnections with one another.
It is not an easy bridge to build. It is not an easy turn to make. It's difficult weaving sometimes.
In the words of the singer Jewel:
There are plenty of people who pray for peace,
but if praying were enough it would have come to be...
Knowing the path we need to walk is not the same as walking the path.
If they are going to make a difference, our prayers at Yom Kippur have to be not for us to be changed, but for us to be the change. If real inner transformation is going to take place-- if, a year from now, we are going to be able to look back on this next year of our lives and discern some genuine progress in our personal human journeys-- then we have to pray-- and strive for and seek-- the real desire and courage and will and strength and determination-- and the means and methods and inspiration-- actually to live the vision of whom we would become.
God knows, there are a whole bunch of reasons for not wanting to change:
For one thing, psychologically it's a whole lot more comfortable just to go on being who we are. After all, we've had a lot of practice-- 30 or 40 or 50 (or 60 or 70) years of being that same old conflicted, repressed, messed-up-- imperfect-- person that each of us is. Sure, there might be things we could change... "But it's just a game I play, and I like me this way..." Or, at least, we know ourselves the way we are, and that's a whole lot less scary than trying to imagine ourselves differently. It's not comfortable to let go of the old accustomed ways of doing things, even when those ways are binding us and limiting us.
And sometimes, it's hard to let go because the past is just too much with us. There are too many vestiges of the past, still present in our lives, for us even to be able to glimpse that there truly might be a different road ahead of us.
There are those old hurts that just keep coming back, again and again, as much as we might wish them out of the way... the words of criticism that someone uttered against us, that should be dead and gone (as, perhaps the people who uttered them are already) but which, somehow, carved their places in our memories and on our minds... the grievance we hold against someone that, if truth be told, we kind of enjoy nursing and rehearsing and replaying over and over again, and holding in store, just in case we need to use it against them some day... the opportunities that we had but didn't take, and the regret and the hunger that keeps coming back to haunt us...
You know, even when we get out the erasers and wipe off the blackboard, the slate never totally comes clean. I remember when I was teaching high school back in the 70s, by the end of the day, I felt as though I was covered with chalk dust. You'd write the lesson on the board, and finish with it, and erase it, and go on to the next... But there was always the dust, the residue of past lessons, there to haunt you, and make you sneeze, and dirty up your glasses.
And you know: haven't you been in a class with a teacher who never washed his blackboard? He'd just quickly erase it, and go on to the next lesson, leaving the shadow of past lessons to get thicker and thicker and thicker, till you weren't really sure anymore which lesson you were supposed to be looking at. Just this indistinguishable gray fog of lessons past and present...
That's what our psychological selves look like, too, if we don't wipe the slate clean from time to time.
That's what life would be like without times of atonement, times to start over, holy days like Yom Kippur. We'll always have the dust, the residue, the detritus of the past there to deal with. Sometimes, we really have to work at it, and scrub the slate clean, to have any chance at all to move forward.
At various points in our lives, if there is to be any hope for us, we have to find the grace to let go, and bury the past, and let go of the hurt, and move on. As Rabbi Isaac Stahl has written:
"Our life is brief and finite. Why allow it to become a collection of hurts and grudges? In the very depths of your soul, dig a grave. Let it be as some forgotten spot to which no path leads. And there in the eternal silence, bury the wrongs which you have suffered. Your heart will feel as if a load has fallen from it."
Yom Kippur gives us a chance to get out a nice clean sponge, and wash the slate clean, so that we can at least have a prayer of learning our next lessons well...
It is significant, I think, that Yom Kippur means "day of atonement", and not "day of judgment". Because remember who's really being asked to do the judging on Yom Kippur: We are. Each of us is called to discern for ourselves where we have missed the mark; where we have fallen short; where we need to begin all over again to walk a path of righteousness.
Sometimes, self judgment is the worst kind, the most bitter and severe-- because, after all, we know ourselves better than anyone else, don't we? We know, better than anyone, those deep, dark recesses of our souls, where little light can penetrate at times. Sometimes, this is not a pretty picture for any of us to want to face.
In a song called "The Unforgiven", the rock band Metallica sings:
What I've felt
What I've known
Never shined through in what I've shown
Never see what might have been...
You labeled me
I'll label you
So I dub thee unforgiven [too].
If we focus only on our failures, our limitations, our spites and smallness, then we might come to the false conclusion that we, too, are "unforgiven"-- or even, that we're not worth forgiving.
But the central affirmation of our Unitarian Universalist faith declares that this is nonsense! Our faith tells us that while we may often be messed-up creatures at times-- capable, God knows, of great evil and selfishness and soullessness, each and every one of us-- there is, shining in our souls, the light of the inherent worth and dignity of each and every person on this earth. That light shines still, though in too many lives, the darkness seems to overwhelm it.
As Jewel also sings:
We've made houses for hatred, it's time we made a place
where people's souls may be seen and made safe.
Be gentle with each other, these fragile flames,
innocence can be lost. It needs to be maintained.
We need to take care of ourselves, and we need to take care of one another-- and believe in one another again.
Preston Bradley, a Unitarian minister from earlier in this century, once wrote:
"I've never met a person, I don't care what his condition, in whom I could not see possibilities. I don't care how much a man might consider himself a failure, I believe in him, for he can change the thing that is wrong in his life any time he is ready and prepared to do it. Whenever he has developed the desire, he can take away the thing that is defeating it. The capacity for reformation and change lies within."
That is the spirit that lies at the heart of Yom Kippur, it seems to me.
It is not a vision of some superhero god in the sky, zapping us with His lightning, and instantly making us perfect reflections of Him.
Nor is it a vision of humankind as impotent and weak, irrevocably tied to sin and depravity.
It is a vision of fallible human beings, like you and me, who fall short countless times, but who always have within themselves the capacity to learn, the power to change, and the ability to put one foot in front of the other and walk down a new road, one step at a time.
Walking the road of these days of our lives can often be a struggle, true. But what of it? Evolution is about struggle. Being human is about struggle. We have not yet arrived. We are always on the path. That doesn't make us evil. It only makes us human.
And because we know we are called to struggle (and journey and grow and evolve) we know, too, that there is much life in us-- and so much potential, and so many precious gifts that our humanity offers us. As Jay Deacon has written: "The call to t'shuv, to turn, would not come to creatures who are meant only to wallow in meanness and smallness. Were the doctrines of human depravity true, there could be... no Jesus or Buddha or Gandhi or Mandela... and no one would ever aspire to anything more than [a most] miserable cynicism..."
But aspire we do. We aspire, always, all of us-- to do better, to be better, to learn more. And on Yom Kippur, we are reminded that our aspiration is a holy act-- indeed, perhaps the most holy act of our human be-ing (our being human) in this world.
"Come, come, whoever you are,"
wrote the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi:
"Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
Come, though you have broken your vow a thousand times.
Ours is no caravan of despair.
Come, yet again, come."
The voice of the God within who speaks in our souls at Yom Kippur is not a voice of harsh judgment, calling us to wallow in our guilt and in our sin, calling upon us to mortify ourselves, to put to death some authentic part of who we are. It is, rather, a still, small voice of invitation that tells us: "Come, come, whoever you are" --as imperfect as you are-- as prone to mistakes as you might be-- calling us back to where we ought to be; inviting us to become who we truly are, deep down inside. It is a voice calling us back home to genuine humanness, and genuine love and compassion for one another.
For "ours is no caravan of despair"-- No, this life, at its heart, is not about despair, but about hope-- burgeoning, wondrous hope, and one resurrection after another.
So, my friends:
La shana tovah tikatevu.
May our names be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Blessed be. Amen.