Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Shabbat Tshuvah and Lady Macbeth

Shabbat  Tshuvah  and Lady Macbeth   

One afternoon, having nothing better to do, I dialed a phone number. It was from an ad in the local paper, which had only the message on it “Shalom” and “ Call this number”. So I did. I could guess in advance what it was for, but, out of curiosity, I dialed anyway.
On the other end, an answering machine came on. The taped voice was that of an elderly, Yiddish accented man presenting what seemed to be a very Jewish explanation of the nature of sacrifices and the Torah, using some traditional Jewish commentaries. One could have assumed that this was a worthy project, a “ Dial a word of Torah”, sponsored by some yeshiva. Of course at the very and came the punch line: since there were no longer any sacrifices to act as a mechanism of forgiveness, that meant there was no means of obtaining of atonement from God – – unless – – this was the clincher – – one accepted Yeshua the Moshiah as the ultimate sacrifice.
I knew when I dialed that that would be the purpose of the number, but his taped “ evangelical drashah” speaks to an ancient question: how is atonement achieved? How can we feel ourselves forgiven by a God of justice for crimes which we, in our guilt, see as horrible indictments against us.
It doesn’t require any demonic force to pursue us in our guilt. We are quite capable in our own imaginings to create our own hell of self-punishment.
I mentioned Lady Macbeth. You know the plot from Shakespeare.  Lady Macbeth has been the accomplice to her husband’s murder of the King and cannot forget her actions. Night after night she gets up from her sleep to try ineffectually to remove the stains of blood which only she can see.
“Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
A great line if ever there was one, followed by this well-known one-liner:
“Out, damned spot! Out, I say”.
Lady Macbeth’s suffering was well deserved. However, Shakespeare has given us one of the great examples of the crippled neurotic, a classic themes of the literature of psychiatry :We have the unforgiving pursuit by some real or often imagined sin which cripples the neurotic in a myriad of fashions.
One central purpose of this season from Rosh Hashanah  to Yom Kippur is to enable us to find relief from the hounds of hell, whether we picture them as a theological reality or a mental aberration. How is atonement achieved?
There’s a classic debate in rabbinic lore in which different verses of the Bible answer just that the same question. It is the debate between the various strands of biblical thought: the schools of wisdom, prophecy, poetry, and priesthood.( Pesikta d Rav Kahana 24:7)
Asks wisdom, what will become of the sinner? She answers, “ Evil pursues the sinner.” In such a perspective, this is a world of cause and effect, a world of unbending determinism. Evil reaps evil and there is no escape. Lady  Macbeth as well as Lord Macbeth himself  reap the consequences of the murderous plot. That is their Karma.
Ask the prophets, ”What will become of the sinner?” They answer,” The soul that sins, it shall die.” For the prophets, the sense of justice, of righteous indignation is paramount and overwhelming. Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus: let justice be done even though the world be destroyed. The crimes and sins of the people cannot be wiped off the slate. Thus when we read on Yom Kippur the story of Jonah, we encounter such a prophet. The people of Nineveh have sinned? Then let them be destroyed, no matter what. I have sinned: throw me into the ocean!

Ask Psalms, what will become of the sinner? He answers,” Let the sinners cease out of the earth.” It is the rhetorical flourish of the poet. He echoes the criminology of the writer of Proverbs, of wisdom, and theological imperative of the prophet.” Let sinners cease out of the earth and the wicked shall be no more.” With one fell swoop, the entire kit and caboodle are undone
Ask the Torah, ask the school of priests, what will become of the sinner? She answers,”Bring the guilt offering and achieve atonement thereby.” This is the school of the ritualist, the theologian and the formal religionists. Since guilt is there, and either the mind or God is unforgiving and unbending, then we must engage in a ritual act. Man is after all “Homo symbolicus” the human being of symbols. That which distinguishes us from animals is our ability create and think in terms of symbols. All actions and objects exist in the realm of symbolism. That which is been carried out in a phenomenal world can only be undone in the world of metaphor and imagery. Hence the dance of the witch doctor or the sacrifice of the ancient temple, or the need to posit, as evangelists who wish to convert us claim,  some universal, overwhelming sacrifice to end all sacrifices, of the son of God. It is also the answer, once again, of the neurotic, who seeks, through the use symbolic action, relief from the torments of conscience.
Is this the end of the conversation? The Midrash covered all the branches of the Bible but did anyone ask God what he thought? The Midrash continues to ask God. What is God’s answer for us? Not Wisdom, not Psalms, not Prophets, not even the Torah. Rather, we ask, “What does God want? What will become of the sinner?
“ Let him do Teshuvah , carry out the act of return, of change, and all will be forgiven.”
What does God seek? Not cruelty, not harsh justice, not inexorable law, nor any magic approach. Ultimately, God speaks as the teacher to his pupils – – to the sinner, he says – – you can grow, you can mature, you can change your actions. It is within your grasp, within your ability to attain atonement – – not through animal sacrifices, not through any mediators in heaven, but through your own readiness to grow and change. The road to Teshuvah, to return to the path of good, is continually open, never blocked, never closed off, to any of us at any time Our path to reconciliation with God, with ourselves, without conscience, and with our fellow human beings, is forever open to us to the actions we choose to do.

May we always indeed take the path of the right choice.  Amen.

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