Several years ago, a few hours before the start of Yom Kippur evening services, friends of mine invited me to their home to help them prepare for the meal following the Yom Kippur fast. Welcoming a break after endless writer’s block while preparing my evening sermon for our synagogue, I joined them at their tiny apartment, where the cooking was underway. “Come on,” they yelled with good nature at me as I stepped through the door, “Yom Kippur is in four hours and we have to cook the five alarm chili before then.” The chefs’ menu choice troubled me: I shuddered when I imagined an apartment full of people who had just fasted for twenty five hours feasting their stomachs on a boiling stew of meat and hot peppers. However, as we say in Hebrew, b’taam va’reiach, ein l’hit-va-keiach, don’t argue over matters of taste and smell.
My friends’ pre-holiday kitchen was in joyous pandemonium. “Could you please cut these peppers for the chili?” they asked me, pointing to the tiny, brightly colored fruits that lay silently on the cutting board at their table. I gladly sat down and prepared to slice the beautiful little peppers cross wise into rings. Their tiny, delicate bodies and near florescent red and yellow hues intrigued me. I had never seen peppers like these before, and I assumed that they were miniature Sweet Bells, bland enough yet with a slight astringency that I loved with cheese and bread. “Those are Habaneros, they’re spicy,” one of my friends remarked in answer to my puzzlement. Sadly, she forgot to say anything else about them.
Habaneros are the evil kittens of the pepper family. Imagine those sickeningly cute feline balls of fur spewing acid all over you and you begin to understand the deceptiveness of Habaneros. Inside of one small fruit are between 300,000 and 500,000 Scoville units of heat, due to the high levels of concentration of capcaisin, the chemical in peppers that could burn off your face and which is the favorite of pepper sprays. But my mouth and skin had never been in a firefight with a Habanero, much less been near one, so without guidance or asking more questions, I took a kitchen knife and plunged into them.
In the middle of our cooking, a mutual friend who had recently moved away called to wish us a happy new year. I cradled the phone between my ear and my face to speak with her, as my cutting continued. “Have a great new year and good luck with your graduate school classes,” I told her. As I put down the cordless phone, my fingers brushed nonchalantly against the cut peppers, then against my lip and cheek, and I proceeded to finish my preparations. Within seconds, my fingers, face and lip began to swell and burn fiercely. Was I allergic to the peppers or to something else in the room? Had I actually caught fire? I moaned to my friends, “It feels like my face is burning!” Running into the dining room and looking at my reddening cheeks, they went into spasms of defensive laughter mixed with distress. “Did you touch your face after cutting the Habaneros? Their capsaicin content is very high, which is why we use them for five alarm chili!” As I rushed into their bathroom to throw water on myself, all I could think was, “How am I going to get to services on time with a burning face? Will I have a face left?” My friends just kept yelling, “Oh, God, we killed the rabbi!”
We called a local medical practice that we all used to ask them what we should do. “Take bread, soak it in milk, and place it on the affected areas of your face,” they counseled us. This was not a very practical suggestion, in part because my friends’ house is kosher; meat dishes and utensils were out on every surface of the kitchen and dining room, and pulling out dairy dishes at that moment just wouldn’t work.
“Call D!” one of my friends yelled to me. Of course, D, a local rabbinic colleague and pepper farmer (seriously), would know what to do.
“Hello?” D asked as he picked up my call.
“D, it’s Dan. I know this is a terrible time to be calling you, but I just got capcaisin on my cheeks and lip from cutting some Habanero peppers, and now my face is burning. What should I do?”
D was silent for a moment. Then, the verdict: “Call the local Poison Control Center now!”
The dispatcher at Poison Control had likely heard every scenario of poisoning emergency imaginable, so her voice was calm, steady and robotically serene. She chirped, “Place your face under a shower head, douse it in water for the next two hours…and have a nice day!”
I didn’t have two hours. I didn’t have two minutes. My face was as flushed from humiliation as it was from Habanero juice, and I still needed to rush home, wash up, and eat before a grueling fast and leading a packed house of worshipers expecting spiritual uplift. On the eve of the holiest day of the year, I sat under my friends’ removable shower head and waited for the intense heat to dissipate slowly from my skin. What an enervating, wasted afternoon I thought to myself. What a horrible way to begin Yom Kippur. What was I going to do about that evening’s sermon?
Of course, I suddenly thought, what better sermon is there than sharing lessons learned from one’s personal story? Calming down considerably, I went home, prepared for the holiday, and left for synagogue. That night, in the holy hush of an atoning community likened by tradition to angels in heaven, I began my sermon:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that today I got a sense of what sinners experience in the fires of hell.”
My story is a dark comedy of errors which I hope to never experience again, yet I actually was able to share it that night as a lesson about forgiveness and repentance quite distinct from my sarcastic opening line. The idea of sinners burning in hell mostly has its roots in early church declarations about the afterlife, as one can read in Dante’s Divine Comedy trilogy. There are Talmudic legends that talk about God punishing sinners with burning fire, and Jewish sources concerning the afterlife abound. However, the idea that people who sin are punished with untold suffering in this and the next world never became a dogma in Judaism; it is also conspicuously absent from the high holy days liturgy, where we would expect it to figure prominently as cautionary polemic aimed at the not-yet-repentant. Instead, the Mahzor (high holiday prayerbook) conveys a comforting and conciliatory message which is reflected in the use of three verses from the book of Ezekiel the prophet whose theme is, “I, God, do not wish for the evildoer to die but to return from his wayward path and live.” We know what the acidic burn of shame for bad behavior feels like, yet simultaneously, we are all too skillful at numbing that spiritual burn with petty rationales excusing us for our grossest infractions. The message of the high holy days, Yom Kippur especially, occupies a position between these two extreme reactions, which is not unlike that of the dispatcher at Poison Control with whom I spoke that afternoon: “You got sin poisoning on your skin? That’s not good, but you’re going to be just fine, so stop hyperventilating. Wash the poison off with the waters of teshuvah, don’t splash it on anyone near you, try not to get such corrosive stuff on yourself in the future, get back to your daily business quickly, and for God’s sake if not your own… have a nice day and a great life!”