Overcoming the Past
This week’s parashah strikes a note that reverberates throughout the liturgy of our High Holy Day services: “I pardon (salahti), as you have asked (14:20).” Prayers for forgiveness (selihot-same word) punctuate the season of introspection from the week before Rosh Hashanah to the end of Yom Kippur. Not surprisingly, this verse from our parashah appears often in these prayers. The concept of atonement enables us to bridge the chasm between divine expectation and human reality. It prevents the perfect from becoming the enemy of the good. For humans, holiness is always a temporary state of being. Without forgiveness, we would find ourselves forever alienated from God.
The crux then is not whether Judaism has a concept of a forgiving God, which it surely does, but how much of our errant behavior is forgiven. When we have finished the process of spiritual cleansing, is our slate clean? Are we wholly at one with God as the English word atonement implies? “Not entirely,” is the response of Judaism. In our quest for reconciliation, we do not end up with a whitewash. A residue of our sin remains. I would argue that through such a temperate view, Judaism expresses its respect for reality. The function of religion is not to obliterate the harshness of reality, which it can’t do anyway, but to soften it, which it can.
At the end of u-netaneh toqef, the signature prayer of the High Holy Day liturgy, which graphically depicts the sanctity of the moment, the congregation gives voice to Judaism’s reality principle: “But penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree (Harlow Mahzor p.243).” No matter how heartfelt our contrition, we don’t get away scot-free. Our fate is mitigated, not rescinded. There are consequences of our behavior that can’t be reversed. To regain the trust of someone we have abused or betrayed can’t be done through words alone. Atonement helps us bear what lies beyond exoneration. It also redirects us. With God’s grace comes the resolve to break our hardheartedness, to infuse our interpersonal relationships with a tincture of altruism. In short, Judaism promises us a change of heart, not a transformation of reality.
My detour is meant to show the consistency of worldview between the Torah and rabbinic Judaism. The dramatic narrative of the ten spies, with their demoralizing report on the possibility of conquering the land of Canaan, turns on the conception of partial forgiveness. Despite the brave protests by Joshua and Caleb, the ten spies trigger an outright rebellion among the Israelites: “Let us head back for Egypt (14:4).” An explosion of fear is about to abort Israel’s subservience to God, whose reaction is equally passionate. To reject the conquest is to deny the purpose of the exodus. The covenant is over. God has endured one betrayal too many. God informs Moses that Israel will perish by pestilence and Moses will sire a new nation built of sturdier mettle.
Moses manages to ease God’s wrath. The Egyptians would attribute the demise of Israel in the wilderness to God’s impotence. Prudence prevails and God enunciates the words of forgiveness I cited at the outset. But strikingly, the absolution is not total. We do not return to the status quo ante. Israel will continue to be God’s chosen people, but the present generation that witnessed the cascade of miracles in Egypt, at Mount Sinai and in the wilderness will never enter the promised land. In partial fulfillment of God’s original impulse, the direct beneficiaries of the exodus will meet their death in the wilderness. God extends the sojourn of Israel to forty long years.
Implicit in this narrative is the theology that gets more fully formulated in the liturgy of the Rabbis. The past can never be eradicated, only overcome. While the generation unaffected by God’s intervention will suffer the consequences of its disbelief, God leaves open the possibility of finding a more worthy Israelite partner in the generations-to-come. The theology of Judaism avoids indulging in a world of make-believe.
Indeed, Judaism’s respect for reality moderates our religious expectations. The extended intensity of the High Holy Day experience is not intended to gain us entrance into life eternal. All we seek is the gift of one more year in which we might repair our wayward acts and enhance the meaning of our lives. Religiously, good things come in small doses. To be spared the full brunt of our misdeeds and to be given a second chance are enough of a blessing to make life endurable.