Atonement is really At-One-Ment. This lovely play on the English word conveys the truth that the Jewish concept of “sin” is simply that which separates us from each other, and from the wholeness to which we are meant to belong. It is a “missing the mark” which leaves us feeling alone and vulnerable. The only effective repentance is that which is restorative of the individual’s relationship with our own wholeness, and with that which connects us to the whole world, in the great wide path of the human spiritual journey in which we live, move, and have our being.
In this week’s parashah, we relive our ancestors’ most egregious act of separation from themselves, each other and G*d (another word for the world beyond us of which we are an essential part). So soon after the act of courage and faith in each other that allowed us to leave Egypt, so close upon the heels of entering into the Covenant of promise between us and the vision we shared at that moment, we panicked and lost that faith. Our ancestors created a pitiful substitute for the Sinai moment: a small model of a bull, molded of the gold and other metal they could collect. Then they stood around it and proclaimed “this is your god O Israel!”
To be fair, they were pitiful: afraid of the present, unsure of the future. We can relate in these dark days when our highest leadership is similarly absent, in that it displays its incompetence to lead, and to gather us together around a meaningful vision. No great leader such as Moshe Rabbenu (familiarly and lovingly called “Moshe our Rabbi” in our rabbinic tradition) is going to appear to save us from ourselves. It doesn’t really work to look for one person to lead us forth from our common challenge, anyway, since no leader will be able to stand up under all our needs and projections.
The Torah, as a record of our people’s uncertain struggle for meaning and for goodness, relates that restorative justice requires all of us; the first step as the Israelites took it was to stop tolerating the evil speech and deeds of those within the community. The second step was to include everyone whose heart so moved them to participate in building the holy space that would now stand for a sadder, wiser relationship with the Wholeness we seek. With the right intention, this work shows us that we need each person’s honest, individual, unique contribution. Only in this way does our atonement become at-one-ment.
In the documentary film Lies and Miracles, the Oregon premiere of which Shir Tikvah was privileged to host this week at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, the survivor Irenka Traunik ז״ל relates the trauma she experienced as a small child exiled with her family to a Siberian labor camp. “I really do believe that people are created good,” she said, “and then something happens that ruins them.”
Not everyone repented of the Golden Calf incident, as it is known. And so we learn that It’s important to keep both halves of Irenka’s statement in mind, as our Jewish theology does. While we pray that all of us be included in a happy healthy life, in our prayers every morning we also ask for help to separate ourselves from אדם רע וחבר רע – from “an evil person and an evil companion.” We must insist that those in a healthy community be willing to be at one with its values, and if that is not possible, there must be a separation, for the sake of clarity of values, and for the sake of the health of the whole. Every community must do its best to be at one with its highest vision; we can’t expect perfection, any more than our ancestors could, but we must keep trying for the best we can do.
Recognizing that we are all doing the best we can is necessary. Kal v’homer, as Talmudic reasoning offer us, “all the more so,” we must recognize and lift up true atonement and its capacity to heal us.