The Reprieve

Were you aware that every year, erev Thanksgiving, a turkey is sent to the White House for the president to pardon? Well, actually, two turkeys are sent, in case one cannot fulfill its duties.

I hope that I’m not the only one who immediately  thought of the sacrifices that appear scattered throughout the Torah. -There are several in which pairs of animals are sacrificed, but of course, the most famous is the sacrifice of the goats on Yom Kippur. It is a bit different in this case of course: rather than one animal being sacrificed, and the other set free, the turkeys are delivered to the White House in a motorcade where one is pardoned, and then both are retired – to live long lives elsewhere.

I decided not to bother to go and look up the origins of this mysterious ceremony, so that I can imagine it in any way that I wish.

The human predilection for symbolic action is so enormously pervasive.
On the day before much of the country engages in a ritual of gathering families together, many offering examples of what they are grateful for, many, many of them eating the same ritual foods – turkey, pumpkin pie, stuffing, watching the same football game… on this day before, the main dish is pardoned and offered an escape to a long life.  I hope all of you will consider offering your own thoughts on what this could possibly mean in the comments.

Compare this ritual to that of the ancient Israelites and their sacrifices of atonement. It makes me wonder if, even in ancient times, the Israelites didn’t really consider sacrifice to be efficacious for atonement any more than we think that  it is. After all, the rabbis, after the Temple was destroyed did not elect to maintain a sacrifical cult, even though they could have offered sacrifices somewhere that was not the Temple, as they had prior to it. many of the rabbis hated tashlich – that ceremony still beloved today, in which we cast our sins out with bread to be eaten by the fish – symbolizing several things at once – generosity, atonement… and yet, few people believe that throwing crumbs at fish is really the same as doing the hard work of repentance.

Yet, we hold fast to our symbols, because symbols are important to humans. And so I wonder if, this past week, as the horrific violence throughout Israel and Gaza erupted, it is because we lack symbolic actions that so many people who are normally rational, intelligent people turned to ugly words. I wonder if it is how loose our ties are with one another, and how few  gestures we are capable of making, that people choose to pick out one sliver of time and say, “This is when it started; They are the ones responsible.”

Most of what I heard was not simply absurd, but venomous. I am not, here, going to spell out the interlocking causes of this week’s violence (If you want to read about that, there are excellent resources here). But what is troubling is the quick dive into a certain kind of blinders which require blame to accrue to exactly and only one people, and that people must not be one’s own, and more than that, if anyone  – even one’s family, one’s friend, a person known for their rationality, or leadership, or love of their people- anyone dares to show sympathy for someone “on the other side,” that person must then be classified as an anti-Semite, a self-hater, an enemy of …well, of all of us. In the symbolic language being thrown around, compassion for the outsider has no place, because in this particular set of meanings, there is only the right and the enemy.

I am troubled by this, as I hope many are, not only because it is incorrect. I am also troubled because that is not what the symbolic language of Judaism is meant for (nor, I am  told by my Muslim friends, is it what the symbolic language of Islam is for). The traditional language of symbolism in Judaism is prayer: thanks, praise and request; it is actions which are meant to show us a path to doing differently, not to doing more of the same.

The reason the rabbis hated tashlich was because they worried that people would mistake throwing bread upon the waters for real atonement. But the rabbis needn’t, in that case, have worried.: people know that – even when they are unable to bring themselves to do it, or to do it completely- that atonement is hard work, it is not just words, and not just symbolic actions, but must be followed by doing what one fears most – admitting wrongdoing, apologizing, doing reparation where possible, and then refraining from repeating the same actions again when the opportunity arises. And sometimes it is the admission and the apology that are more difficult than anything else.

Because admitting I’m wrong can mean that I may have to change my thoughts about the way I move through the world. And I have to do this even if the other person is wrong too. My role is to fix my own actions, not the other person’s. It is very difficult. And yet, until I do, my symbols remain empty, my words are meaningless, and my relationship with the world is out of balance.

I am grateful for the ceasefire. Enormously grateful. I am grateful not to have to worry about rockets falling upon people I love. I am grateful that there is a new chance to do something different. But I know that I – and many other people- need not only to engage in our symbolic actions, but actually take action -and taking refuge in castigating one another for not saying the right words is not enough.

Posted on November 21, 2012

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