B”H, the following is scheduled to be delivered by me at today’s Yom Kippur service in Sonoma. Take from it what you will, or leave it be.
TO PARAPHRASE ANOTHER FAITH’S holiday greeting, “Teshuva [repentance, return] is the reason for the season.” What I want to tell you about is a rather embarrassing teshuva of my own.
First, let me take you back to an exciting day in our people’s history: the consecration of the Tabernacle, the portable wilderness tent containing the ark with the Ten Commandments, and where Moses spoke with G?d for the rest of the prophet’s life.
On that day, according to chapter 9 of Leviticus, a most wondrous thing happened: after the ritual offerings had been slaughtered and placed atop the altar, fire came forth from the Tabernacle and consumed them.
The people all shouted and fell on their faces – I mean, wouldn’t you? But their joy lasted only a moment.
In the very next verse, and for reasons that have been debated for millennia, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu made an unauthorized incense offering. Fire then came forth from the Tabernacle – and consumed them.
Moses, perhaps moved by brotherly concern, tells Aaron that “This is what יהוה meant by saying: ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy and gain glory before all the people.’” In other words, “Somebody had to demonstrate how seriously we must take having the literal Presence of G?d in our midst – and how important it is to get things right.”
The Torah then tells us: “And Aaron was silent.”
But 13 verses after that – at the Torah’s exact middle, in fact – Moses hocks Aaron in cheynek for not getting one of the offerings right. “Why didn’t you eat the sin offering?” Moses demands. “It absolves the community’s guilt! You should have eaten it!”
Aaron points out that he was in mourning – and mourners are forbidden to partake of any offerings. His exact words: “Such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would יהוה have approved?”
The Torah then tells us: “And Moses approved.”
From a teshuvah standpoint, this is a huge deal. Moses talks with G?d on a daily basis. He should have known better. He should have known not to bother his brother with details, especially right after Aaron saw his two eldest sons being killed. But Moses’ anger got the better of him – and not for the first or last time, either.
Sometimes, anger can lead otherwise well-meaning people to make big mistakes.
Which brings me to my embarrassing teshuvah.
I returned to Judaism in 1996 after a twenty-one year, spiritually eclectic, post-bar mitzvah intermission. And I was determined to get things right. I crossed every “aleph” and dotted every “bet” with the zeal typical of those who wrongly think they’ve invented the wheel or discovered fire.
So determined was I to “get things right” that I overlooked one thing: as important as the ritual mitzvot are – and they are! – it’s the interpersonal mitzvot that test us the most.
But I didn’t know that at the time. Believe it or not, I hadn’t yet realized that kindness is one of Judaism’s highest values. I was a pious Jew – or thought I was – but my religious enthusiasm also made me a lousy human being.
So. There I was at Santa Rosa’s Mendocino Avenue Safeway on a Friday afternoon, chewing out an employee for his store’s having the temerity not to carry Shabbat candles. Birthday candles they had. Votive candles also. Long tapers for romantic dinners? In abundance. But not the officially sanctioned, correctly-labeled-on-the-box Shabbat candles. And I was, to put it mildly, annoyed.
I think of that afternoon from time to time, and though I’ve mostly made my peace with it, the memory brings a faint echo of guilty discomfort. I’ve tried very hard to make up for that incident, and others like it, by working at becoming the best human being I can be. By paying that bestness forward so as to make up for the past. Hoping that my own kindness and compassion trickles down eventually to where it’s needed most.
Maya Angelou wrote: “When you know better, you do better.” I believe that’s true. But I still wish I could find that clerk again and say to him, “I have, with difficulty, forgiven myself for being an all-around jerk to you – and I hope that you can find it in your heart to do the same for me.”