A couple of years ago, at this time of year, I wrote a piece in this space about the scapegoat ritual (the climax of the biblical observance of the Day of Atonement). I’m still quite pleased with the piece (and I’m comfortable with that self-satisfaction because I can’t take actually take credit for the central idea). But I’m not in the same place this year. This year, I’ve been meditating on something else I wrote about atonement, a piece I wrote a decade ago:
It is said of the four who entered the Garden, and gazed: one died; one went mad; one became apostate; and one departed in peace. But what did they see?
At the entrance to the Garden stands an angel, and he brandishes a whirling, flaming sword. For what purpose does he wield this sword?
For our righteous deeds, we are promised a share in the world to come. But for our transgressions, we are punished in the world to come. How can this be? For who among us is wholly righteous?
Some have said that when righteousness outweighs villainy, he merits a share, but when it is less, he is judged wanting. But can the man who steals from the orphan atone by giving to the widow?
The dead approach the Garden, housed in the body of their life, their deeds made flesh, and face the angel and the sword. And with a burning stroke, he cuts out the blemishes of their transgressions, and leaves their flesh gaping. For we are told, that none with a blemish may approach the Lord (Leviticus 21:23), and none with a blemish may be offered (Leviticus 22:20).
But their flesh gapes, for there is no Experience in the Garden, no way for souls to heal the gashes made by holy flame.
And this, perhaps, is what the four saw there: the maimed and crippled souls stumbling in Paradise.
The tongues that gossiped, the lips that spoke falsely, the eyes that coveted – cut out.
The hands that struck in anger, the fingers that stole, the legs that ran to do evil – lopped off.
And the poor souls who huddled in the dark, who buried themselves in their caves, so fearful of evil that they hesitated to do good; pale souls who pass almost unnoticed through the byways of the Garden, they live in the poor houses that their deeds built while they lived.
One in four? There is not one in a thousand who would not die, go mad, or lose his faith, gazing on the cauterized stumps of the saved.
I called it a “parable of teshuvah (repentance),” and reading it now, it sounds like a horror story. What I’ve been brooding on is that, at the time, I thought: ooh, that’s good! That’s serious stuff – but inspiring! And I tacked on to the end of the piece an exhortation: don’t wait until you enter the Garden! Take up your own flaming sword, and cut out your sins while you are still alive – so that the wounds you make by cutting have time to heal, and you may enter the Garden whole. I wished only that I would have the fortitude to take my own advice, and cut out those parts of my soul that were unworthy of the Divine presence.
Now, that is a horror story. That gives me nightmares.
To be fair, I’ve had nightmares of accidentally slicing off fingers and such for as long as I can remember – that’s probably where I got the imagery for the parable in the first place. But what mental place was I in, a decade ago, that I wished I could maim myself, in order to make myself whole? It’s a pretty gruesome metaphor to have embraced.
I don’t embrace it any longer. But refusing to embrace it has made for a rather fallow season of repentance this year.
After Rosh Hashanah, there’s a custom to go down to a body of water and toss bread in while reciting Psalms. (Well, some strictly Orthodox Jews don’t actually throw bread, because throwing bread could be construed as feeding the ducks, which would be work, or wasting bread, which would be a sin in its own right, but let’s not go there). You’re symbolically casting your sins out, throwing away what you want to get rid of. But by what process can these things be alienated from you, that you can throw them away to be eaten by a duck, and then be gone from you forever?
It’s too easy, I have come to feel, to make oneself believe that one has rid oneself of habits, needs, qualities that you wish you didn’t have. To say: I will reject envy, anger, lust – whatever your particular deadlies happen to be (or their modern psychological equivalents; it doesn’t really matter). To will them gone, cut them out, cast them upon the waters. In my experience, they are something else you will find again after many days.
I am more drawn, this season of repentance, to the wisdom at the end of Ursula Le Guin’s classic, A Wizard of Earthsea. Ged, the hero of the novel, has spent much of the book fleeing from a mysterious black creature, released by him when he toyed with a spell beyond his ability. The creature has hunted him all across the world, and Ged’s only hope of controlling it would require learning its true name, which he has sought, in vain, for years.
But when finally he comes face to face with the thing of darkness, he knows its name.
I’d like to be able to call my own darkness by its true name, that is to say, my own. But I can’t quite do that. Not this year, anyway.
So: no embracing the dark doppelgänger, but no cutting him out with a flaming sword either. This year, as I stood on the bridge over the Gowanus Canal, feeding the mutant three-headed ducks that live in its polluted waters, I simply asked for patience.
And my son looked at me.
“Patience?” he scoffed. “You? That’ll last about three minutes.”
Which was, unfortunately, about right.