Sunday, April 13, 2008

Parshat Acharei Mos

There is an inherent contradiction in the way that G-d relates to the world. We describe Him in the “Thirteen attributes” and elsewhere as a G-d of mercy and forgiveness. After the sin of the Golden Calf G-d explained to Moshe the concept and process of repentance and revoking any harsh decree. Yet at the same time we state that G-d is just and truthful, punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous. Surely these two attributes are in conflict - if G-d is prepared to forgive and overlook punishment, how is that meting out justice or being fair. On the other hand, if G-d were not merciful, the world would stand no chance of survival. From the very creation of mankind we have gone against the Divine will and only survived instant death because of His forgiveness and acceptance of repentance.

Atonement and forgiveness are central to this week’s Torah reading, dealing primarily with the laws and service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Miraculously, through confessing our sins and by slaughtering some sacrifices, we are given a blank slate to begin again. Whatever happened to Divine justice - does each sin not need to be punished before atonement can be given?

The answer is that from our perspective, bound by the constraints of time, we cannot conceive of justice which is also forgiveness. G-d, however, is beyond any temporal constraints and perceives all of history as one instant. By introducing the dimension of time we can reconcile the apparent contradiction. Something which appears wrong in the present, can actually turn out to be the catalyst or preparation for the future. If a person resolves to repent and channel their energies back to serving G-d, then all those late nights spent watching television could turn out to be a preparation for all the late nights spent performing Mitzvoth. The mental arithmetic involved in keeping track of the football scores may be the same skills needed to fully grasp a page of Torah. Conversely, instead of punishing a sin severely at the moment it took place, that same justice can be meted out a little at a time, through several minor hardships in order to give that person another chance to make amends.

This is also shown in Judaism’s focus on process, the journey through time, rather than on results, which are momentary. The Omer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot are counted not as an end in and of themselves but showing us the importance of the process of spiritual growth. Each day only has meaning in relation to the days that came before it and those that follow.
All of this is encapsulated in a single word in this week’s Torah reading. The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) casts lots over two identical goats. One is offered as a sacrifice to G-d, its blood sprinkled opposite the Holy of Holies, while the other symbolically bears all of the sins of the Jewish nation and is lead out into the desert where it is sent over the edge of a cliff and dies. The Torah states “Aaron shall press both his hands on the live goat’s head, and he shall confess on it all the Israelite's sins, rebellious acts and inadvertent misdeeds. When he has thus placed them on the goat’s head he shall send it to the desert with an Ish Iti.” (Vayikra 16; 20-21). Ish Iti is translated (based on Rashi’s commentary) as “a specially prepared man”, but means literally “a man of the moment”. The sending of the goat comes to remind us of the concept of forgiveness and the importance of time. It is taken away by a man who is related in the text to a single moment in time. If we were to look only at the moment, we would have no possibility of repentance or pleading for repentance. We would be as the goat, thrown of the cliff to certain death. Only because of the future are we able to turn to G-d and ask Him to give us one more chance.

This is also the metaphor of the desert. The barren desolate wilderness is not only devoid of life, but is also a place where time stands still. The Halacha discusses the case of one who is lost in the desert and loses track of which day of the week it is, thereby not knowing when to observe Shabbat. This is because time is meaningless when confronted with an unending horizon of nothingness. Similarly the fledgling Jewish nation had to spend forty years in the desert after leaving Egypt. The total journey should have only taken three days, but time had to stand still in order to rid them of their Egyptian slave mentality.

By sending the goat into this desert at the hand of a “man of the moment” we show our commitment to a real and meaningful future, and accept the importance of process over time rather than the results of an instant.

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