Transformation and Reconciliation
[This essay was sent to New Menorah, but we cannot find its author or address.]
And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Children of Israel that they must expel from the camp anyone with Tzora, and any from whom flows a seminal discharge (Tzav) and anyone who has defiled their soul. Any male or female, you shall send them outside of the camp. And they shall not defile their camps...
(Numbers 5: 2-3)
Imagine yourself entering into Yomeem Noraeem, the Days of Awe -- Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur. Of course, the High Holidays, and the forty days immediately preceding them, are about house cleaning for the soul -- taking care of business with other people and with G-d.
And without question, the High Holidays are about T'shuva, the five step process of returning and turning to God. During these days, we figure out what we've done to miss the mark and what to do about it. We all know from personal experience how difficult this process really is.
There is a story that one day a disciple came to Reb Shmelke, and said, "The Torah commands us to love our neighbors as ourself. How can I do this if my neighbor has wronged me? "
Reb Shmelke answered," You must interpret the words of the Torah correctly. This means, "Love your neighbor like you yourself are. For all souls are one. Each is a spark from the original soul, and this soul is wholly inherent in all souls, just like your soul is in all the parts of your body. What if your hand made a mistake and you ended up hitting yourself? Would you take a stick and chastise your hand because it lacked understanding and thus increase your own pain? It is the same with a neighbor, who is really of the same soul as your are, wrongs you for lack of understanding.
The disciple persisted. "But what if this person is truly wicked before G-d?"
"Don't you know," said Rabbi Shmelke, "that the original soul came out of the essence of G-d and that every human soul is a part of G-d? Will you have no mercy on G-d when you see that that one of G-d's holy sparks has been lost in a maze and is almost stifled?"
Lest we forget, T'shuva is a two-way street. The process is not just about another person coming and asking us forgiveness. To complete our house cleaning, we must also let go of that which causes us pain. We have to truly forgive those who have wounded us. This is a difficult task because, if we are honest, we must look inside our deepest selves. When we do this, we can no longer hide and we have to begin to see the holiness in everyone. What an awe-some, and awe-inspiring, task.
Let's set the scene. We know from Parshat Naso (Numbers 5:2) that there are three types of Cheyteem for which a person is sent out of the Israel's camp:
o Tzura (leprosy), a physical illness that occurs as a result of gossip or slander.
o Tzav, an impurity caused by physical impurities
o Tameh Nefesh, a defilement of our "soul"
These Cheyteem (let's use this word that because of the implications of this versus the "heaviness" of the word "sins" in English) occur on a psychological, physical, or spiritual level. Tzura occurs when we defile our relationship with others by spreading gossip or slandering others. Tzav occurs when we defile our physical body and don't honor the temple that houses our soul. Tameh Nefesh occurs when we don't honor that essence of ourselves that makes us unique. Simply put, cheyteem occur when we break faith and damage our connections with ourselves and others. The end result is that we wound the soul and end up in pain.
What occurs when we are wounded? To explain things, let's use two concepts that the Piezetzner Rebbe (R. Kalonymus Shapira, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto) writes about:
o Drawing near to G-d (Karov)
o Drawing away from G-d (Rachok)
We tend to think in polar oppositesâ€”black and white; good and bad; light and dark; etc. (Even computers function this way: everything is either a 1 or a 0; it cannot be both at the same time!) That is a function of how our thinking works. When we draw near, we are very aware of G-d's presence. We feel "close." When we draw away, we cannot sense G-d's presence. We feel "far away.
But remember, G-d is everything, so "near" or "far" is a false dichotomy! G-d is as close as we choose to think. G-d is not far away; we just think that this is the case. There is no place that is really far from G-d; it is only we who think that it is. G-d is as close to us, or as far away from us, as we choose to believe.
Moving away from G-d is painful. It creates a hole in our hearts and tears at our soul. The farther away we move, the darker it gets, and the bigger the wound. Instead of feeling G-d's presence, we feel despair and emptiness. We create a wound that acts like a black hole. Everything gets sucked into it, including light, even our-selves. We cannot see anything. (This is, by the way, what we mean by depression.) Eventually, we feel so empty that we are disconnected from everything. This is what we mean when we say that we are "ungrounded." We cannot feel anything because we have disconnected our psychological being from our physical being. We cannot experience anything and can only go through the motions of living.
T'shuva is crucial for our own well being because it is the work of healing our soul. And (I think) the most difficult part involves forgiving others, because that is what heals our heart and makes us whole. In fact, it doesn't really matter if the other person seeks forgiveness. We still must try to forgive because otherwise, the pain holds sway over us. But to do this, we must let go of that which hurts us.
That's easy to say, not so easy to do. How do we do this? And more importantly, how do we know when we are done?
Let's look at the line from Naso (Numbers 5:3) that says, "beyond the camp shall you send them." Let's envision this as if we are a part of the sending someone out: we lead a guilty person outside the camp gates. Then, we turn around and return to the tents inside the camp. What does the person outside the camp see? Our backs. What do we see? The camp. We do not see the person we left behind.
We know that those who commit a cheyt can return, but how can we welcome them back in? I'd argue that to really create wholeness and peace the process does not end with simply saying, "It is O.K. I forgive you." True forgiveness comes when we can look someone in the eye and bless them.
Before going on, it is important to say that sometimes, the wounds are too deep and the pain too great for us to do this work. It is a part of being human, really. When that happens, acknowledging this fact is extremely important step forward. And in this case, perhaps can let go by allowing G-d to do what we cannot.
Believe it or not, there is a process of forgiving others that is clearly outlined in the Torah. In more traditional services, we read it during the repetition of the Amidah; and it is a part of the blessing that many congregations use for Brit Milot and baby namings. It is the Cohaneem prayer, and says the following:
May G-d bless you and keep you
May G-d show G-d's countenance to you and grant you favor
May G-d lift up G-d's face to you and grant you peace.
How can this work? Let's look closely at the words and discover the steps that can help us to a place of true healing.
Step 1: May G-d bless you and guard you. This is the first step in forgiving others. R. Nachman teaches us that we all get angry. This is a common and predictable reaction that we have when someone hurts us, because anger helps us cover up our hurts. Anger can be like an idol because it can keep us from seeing and feeling the truth. Pain can act in the same way. And, when we shut others out in anger, we also shut out G-d. The cure is to mitigate the anger with Rachameem, with compassion. What does this really mean? Compassion flows from unconditional love. If we can get beyond the part of our selves that wants to shut others out, what we experience is what we might call "grace."
When we forgive another person, we do not in any way say that they are not responsible for their acts. We forgive them so that their acts have no power over us. We are healing our wounds. Blessing someone acknowledges this. Guarding someone means that we remember that people are fragile, and that this is part of what makes us human. We can bless someone, we are able to acknowledge their humanityâ€”and we can begin to believe that they deserve compassion.
Step 2: May G-d let you see G-d's countenance and grant you favor. This is the second step, and it is even more difficult than the first. When someone hurts us, we don't want to give them opportunity to do it again. Only someone foolish would do that. So we don't afford them the opportunity that makes us lose "face" or honor. We, figuratively, turn away and don't let them look at us. In a way, we go into hiding. But when we do this, we also hide from ourselves. We cannot look at our hurts and name them for what they are. And we hide from G-d.
This means that we cannot feel the presence of G-d in our hearts and souls, and this causes us pain. This is the process through which we can begin seeing ourselves and begin removing the blocks that keep G-d out and our hurts in.
Our face expresses our emotional state. When we smile, frown, or cry, our face reflects our emotions. One definition of "countenance" is that area of the forehead located just above your eyebrows. To lift up our countenance means that we must face our own pain. That is, we must let our emotions show. This lets other people see enough of us so that they can acknowledge that we are human. And that means that we have to face others, even if we are afraid. And we are all afraid, at some level to do this. To show our countenance means that we can see other, and that they can begin to see us. To grant them favor means that we can begin to act out of the mercy and perhaps even to grant them grace.
Step 3: May G-d lift up G-d's face and grant you peace. This is the final, and hardest, step. To lift up our face means that someone can look into our eyes. This is really difficult because we allow someone else to look into our souls, the essence of who we are. When we are hurt, the last thing we want to do is be vulnerable, especially toward the person who hurt us. Being open means that we also open the door to the possibility of being hurt again.
It seems harsh to say that in order to fully experience life, we must experience pain. But it is true. And here is why: to shut ourselves off to pain is to shut ourselves off to other emotions--and ultimately to G-d. When we lift up our face to another person, we can acknowledge our pain; admit that we are hurt; and, let our feelings flow through us. We can allow our bodies to see what our soul already knows: everyone is holy and a part of G-d and our souls, and the souls of those who have hurt us, are wounded. This step acknowledges that we are all human and gives everyone the chance to do the same. Lifting our faces to someone who hurts us lets them look into our souls because we have truly let go of the hurt. When we do this, we are granted peace and healing from the hurt. We are no longer broken, but have shalom, wholeness.
Rav Nachman teaches that our bodies and souls are intimately connected. Our souls see and hear G-d, but our physical bodies have a tough time doing this. This is because our emotional body, which is housed in our physical body acts like a piece of glass. When we get caught up in our hurts, either from when we harm another person or when we are harmed, the glass becomes thicker and more opaque. It prevents our body from seeing what our soul already knows. So our job is to make our selves clear, to clean off the glass. We do this by seeking forgiveness from others. But this is only one side of the glass, we also have to clean off the other side by forgiving those who harm us.
When we finish, we can look into each other's eyes and so that we "see" G-d's face and "hear" G-d's voice. And that is what we mean by bringing G-d down from heaven during the Yomeem Nora-eem, the Days of Awe.
What an awe-some sight. What an awe-some task.
[This essay was sent to New Menorah, but we cannot find its author or
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