Listen for the word ‘but’. You’ll hear it a lot these days. ‘But’ is an eraser. It sweeps away what comes before it. ‘Sure he’s kind, but he’s also cruel’. The word ‘and’ functions differently. It includes. Sometimes ‘and’ asks us to hold two opposite ideas as equally true. I like to meditate and I love being around crowds.
Young black men assaulted a Jew in Brooklyn this week. The suspects deserve to be punished. And, they are also likely victims of unfair treatment by our Criminal Justice System. Both of these realities can be equally true. Being wronged does not inoculate a person from accountability. Victimhood does not confer infallibility. When the word ‘and’ is used instead of the word ‘but’, a person who victimizes can also be a victim. In our fractious times, we need to restore our ability to say ‘and’.
One of monotheism’s biggest challenges is the notion that compassion and cruelty can come from the single God. It’s one of the hardest parts about belief. I meet people who struggle to trust in God in the face of wrongs inflicted on them and their loved ones.
This week’s portion of Torah specializes in this challenge. The ‘admonition’ describes brutal consequences for misbehavior in vivid detail. “In the morning you will wish it was evening; in the evening you will wish it was morning” (Deut. 28:67). Such disorder represents an upheaval of orderly creation “And there was evening and there was morning, a single day” (Gen. 1:5). Even the Exodus is upended when we’re brought back to Egypt (Deut. 28:69). Clearly none of this is God’s will. But the Torah still imagines God’s omni-benevolence turned inside out. Opposite ideas can be true. God longs to help us weather life’s wrongs.
The spirit of Selichot makes a ‘but’ into an ‘and’. “We are righteous, without sin, but (and) deep down we know we have sinned”. This season of forgiveness is a time when we take responsibility – even for the things we did that made us feel vindicated.
So too with our relationships with others. Someone can wrong us and do right by us. May our relearning how to say ‘and’ help to make this a forgiving season.