More than 26 centuries ago the Biblical Prophet Micah asked “With what should I come before the Lord to bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with burnt offerings? With first year old calves? Would God take delight in thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should I give my firstborn to pay for my crimes, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
And Prophet Micah answered with God’s words: “O Human beings, you have already been told what is good, what the Lord demands of you. Just to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:6-8)
In line with Micah’s insight I offer this retold modern Jewish fable:
Her mother once gave her a bag of nails and told her that every time she lost her temper or insulted somebody she must hammer a nail into the back of their fence.
The first day the girl hit 14 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as she learned to control her anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled. She discovered it was easier to hold her temper than to drive those nails into the fence.
Finally the day came when the girl didn’t lose her temper at all. She told her mother about it and the mother suggested that the girl now pull out one nail for each day that she was able to hold her temper. The days passed. Finally, she told her mother that all the nails were gone.
The mother took her daughter by the hand and led her to the fence. She said, “You have done well, my daughter, but look at all the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger or hate, they leave a scar just like these.” You can stab a nail into a person and then draw it out. It does not matter how many times you say I’m sorry, the wound is still there. A verbal wound is almost as bad as a physical one.
“How can I repair the fence?” asked the girl. “Will it have to remain damaged forever?”
“Yes and no” said the mother. “Our Rabbis say that if the fence is alive and responds to the way you have changed, it too can change and heal itself. If the fence is dead to the possibility of your repentance, it will carry its scars onward. The fence will never be as it was before, but it doesn’t have to be nailless to be a good fence.
If you do your part and change, and the fence does its part in response, God will do something wonderful. God will promote a healing that will make you and the fence better. This process is called Atonement. It means that the changes that come about from repentance and forgiveness lead people to higher levels of relationship than was the case before.”
“What happens if the fence doesn’t respond?” asked the girl. “Can I ever make it whole?”
“You should try on three different occasions,” said the mother, “but if the fence remains dead even after you have changed, YOU can’t force it to become whole. In that case you should take nails out of another fence somewhere else. There are always lots of fences that need fixing, and whenever you fix a fence God will make something wonderful happen.
That is the miracle of Atonement. God always responds to our attempts to become kinder and more helpful to others, by helping us change; and always responds to our change by giving us new and wonderful opportunities for Atonement. This is why we have a Day of Atonement ten days after the beginning of every New Year; so the New Year will be a better one than the last one.”