Look back before you have to

Imagine.  Tomorrow is Yom Kippur.  It’s a time when you look back to revisit actions taken and pivotal moments.  Perhaps you will look back at this very moment.  You may wish you had done certain things with this time.  Try now to do what it is that later you’ll wish you had done.

Rabbi David Wolpe wisely awakens us a precious lesson from Jewish memory and resiliency: the ability to look back before we have to.

This helpful idea presents itself as we learn about the original Yom Kippur ritual from this week’s portions of Torah.  Two lessons leap forth from the text this year: 1) don’t mistake randomness for design, and 2) become more capable of making common moments into pivotal ones.

Yom Kippur’s biblical ritual begins with randomness.  The High Priest casts lots to determine the fates of identical goats (goralot).  Why introduce randomness into the heart of our most solemn day?  To remind us that life is filled with the arbitrary and the indiscriminate.  COVID 19 cares not about righteousness.  Pious and impious alike are afflicted.  This, alas, doesn’t prevent those ‘infected with certainty’ from noxious religious-malpractice. Bari Weiss is required to admonish that daily suffering results from neither God’s vengeance against urban hedonism nor some payback from an angry Mother Earth. Open any page of the Bible and God’s preferences for goodness and wellness are clear. Yet contingencies like chance and misfortune will continue to make us vulnerable.

Although life’s unpredictability suggests many things, it does not imply powerlessness or passivity.  Agency and recovery-capacity are imbedded in the DNA of Yom Kippur.

A second detail from the atonement ritual – the appearance of a ‘person of the moment’ (ish itti) to escort the sin-loaded scapegoat into the wild (Lev. 16:21) – is identified by a time-sensitivity, or a capacity to be wakefully present at a pivotal moment (Netziv).  Knowing ‘what time it is’ is not only about reading a clock.  It’s also about reading a situation.

Pandemic confinement invites the possibility for pivotal moments. This is certainly true for the House of Israel.

Matti Friedman’s important documentary is currently insisting that Israel confront the most troubling period of her military history as a means for making the lessons from its losses matter. Another important wakeup call comes from Yossi Klein Halevi who highlights the challenges of realizing the multi-faith promise enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  Inspiring change-agents like Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum are bringing dreams to life as Rachel Sharansky Danziger reminds us what’s within our hands to accomplish.  Wherever we turned this week of Israel’s Memorial and Independence Days, the role model of the ‘person of the moment’ reminded us that atonement is also about attunement.

One more consequence of time-sensitive thinking is the ability to look back before we have to.

The Bible begins not with sin and danger, but with order and wonder and the human ability to do God’s will.  Now is a good time for us to resume living in accord with these realities.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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