In gladiator movies there’s invariably a scene when the honorable protagonist has a sword pointed at the throat of prone combatant, while evil Romans signal thumbs down, so the defeated’s life can be given for their amusement. Our hero throws down his sword and turns away, in essence saying I choose mercy even at the cost of my own life.
Most of us make much less important decisions, with less serious consequences, with much more fanfare and ado than they deserve. Too rarely do we demonstrate the qualities that’re at the core of this week’s reading. In addition to the Golden Calf story, we’re told of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which in the mystery traditions transmute into a thirteen-petaled rose signifying both forgiveness and remembering.
In our lives I see them as the ability to say to yourself: Stand down. Put those sharp emotions and feelings aside. Put your weapons, your anger, and your destructive patterns away. Give yourself, and whatever you’re pointing all that negativity at, a break. Take a breather. It’s kinda like a time-out period for grown ups. A good kind.
For a little and maybe longer, you surrender to something that’s better than the way you might feel or act reflexively. You give up the helm. Stop trying so hard to do, make, please others, or struggle. You look at your crap and you say simply, Ya know. Let’s try something different this time.
In Torah metaphor it’s dawn. You can stop wrestling. All past failures gone and forgiven. Evaporating like an old bad dream. Sunk cost, as an economist might say. Time to move on in a better direction. Don’t look back, because it won’t be pretty.
Because while you were out carousing, getting caught up in office politics, or in personal dramas, you were pretty much dead to the world as far as living with awareness goes. The more you prattle stories about how you’re trying as hard as you can, unappreciated, entitled, victimized, needy, afraid, blah blah blah, you’re really building a golden calf instead of getting more godlike. And like the Jews condemned to trekking penance, you’re gonna have to serve your time.
This can be a moment of waking up. Albeit it may only be for an instant. But many eastern paths tell us –and hold out for us the hope – that an instant is all that may be needed. A favorite story is of the housewife who, when she hears the chapatti batter hit the splattering oil, suddenly groks the oneness of all things.
Talk about something to pray for.
The next sections of wandering in the wilderness offer us many paths to work on our holiness, assuming we aren’t granted a swift and dramatic revelation. We have yet a lifetime of getting to walk our talk: loving and quarreling, being thoughtful and thoughtless, jubilant and sad, triumphant and questioning, and exploring worlds seen and unseen as best we can.
Sometimes it’s hard to simply take a breath before we do something we will regret. But that’s what a mercy moment is: consciousness knocking hard on your door, hoping you will answer.