Wandering Through the Desert: Sifting Through Our Past on our Way to Revelation

As Gary Anderson writes in his book Sin, a History, “The beliefs we hold about the atonement process are shaped by the stories we tell, which, in turn, are molded by the language we use.” And so, we must ask: how do we, in this generation, understand sin? And what do we believe are the best ways to deal with our sin?

For many of us the word “sin” carries with it negative associations of a God whom we were taught to fear as children and whom we have spent our adulthoods struggling to redefine. “Sin” may conjure up images of the punishing old man in the sky who sees and judges our every move. Or perhaps it feels foreign, a word associated with religions not our own.

In spite of—or perhaps because of—the aversions or the dissonances this word brings up, it is upon us, today, to redefine what sin is and, therefore, determine how we wish to deal with it, both communally and individually. As Robert Frost wrote, in his A Servant to Servants, “The best way out is always through.” We must reckon with the sin until it is transformed. But when, and how, are we to do this? By examining a ritual from our past we can find direction for the future.

During the time when the Temple stood, on Yom Kippur the High priest used to perform a ceremony on behalf of the community to rid the people of their sin. In Leviticus (16:8-10, 21-22) we read that Aaron, the High Priest, would take two goats: one to be marked for a sin offering, the other, called the “goat for Azazel” designated for the “taking away for sin, that it would be sent away into the desert” (Lev 16:8-10). We read that Aaron would lay both of his hands on the goat and make a public declaration that all of the sins of Israel were placed on the goat’s head. It was thought that the goat then lifted up these sins of Israel and carried them off into the desert.

During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we cast our sins into the desert, freeing ourselves from their oppressive burden, unshackling our hearts and minds so that we can begin the year anew. Six months later another new year arrives (Exodus 12:12). After a period of enslavement we find ourselves once again loosening our chains and opening our souls. As we move on the path of freedom—beginning with Pesach and culminating with Shavuot— we can still hear the waves crash behind us as we begin to tentatively make our way through the midbar (desert).

That same desert landscape that we once relegated our sins to is now the backdrop of our journey. The desert preserves, it desiccates and hones through its dry winds and parched air. The sins we left behind have been reduced to their essence by being in the desert, and we see them in clear relief, like bones of bodies left out in the sun. They have waited for us, here, to be reckoned with in a more elemental form. These months later we can see with more objective eyes and a more receptive heart. Sifting through our sins laid bare in front of us, our usual mechanisms of avoidance or denial fall flat. We feel the sorrow, sit with the pain, understand these months later the consequences our actions wrought, and, from there begin to rest into a place of compassion that allows the soul to breath and the heart to shift.

We look back on that which we released during the High Holy Days as we pick through the remnants of what we cast away. Now with some distance we can see more clearly, and can begin asking the difficult questions: Why? Why did we do what we did? What in our nature compels us year after year to commit the same sins in new forms? What psychological barriers exist that keep us locked in this seemingly inescapable cycle? How do we shift the most stubborn aspects of our consciousness such that we are freed? What support do we need? What definitions of self are no longer serving us and what support do we need in developing new ways of being in the world?

We cry and complain: we do not want to do this work. Why couldn’t we have stayed oblivious, shallow and unredeemed? It is through these seven contemplative weeks, counting the days of the Omer as we move through the desert, that we begin to heal our past. Encountering all of our own accumulated misdeeds allows us to become truly free, truly prepared to hear the message of Sinai on Shavuot. And what is this message of revelation? It is the wisdom that comes from the hard, trying work of facing the wrongs we have committed head on, and working with them until they—and we—are transformed.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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