Have you ever done something so bad you thought you’d never be forgiven? Not a small thing, but something you thought, maybe even swore, you’d never do?
That’s what the Israelites do this week, while waiting for Moses to descend Sinai. They get impatient, worry he might not come back. They violate the No other gods commandment, and smelt their gold into a golden calf. It’s not as small as Don’t think about X and then doing so obsessively. But it’s a helluva lot more than We were restless. Hard to stay calm when your mind keeps chewing over the insufficient calming of Don’t worry. Be patient..
I just finished two books about guilt and shame. About actions taken which dominate the lives of the people who did them. Both Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands are good reads, though it’s tough living inside the heads and hearts of people in chronic emotional pain. Each needs to find a road to redemption. A way to start over is lots harder and more important than dialing up a pizza or a Netflixx movie.
It means finding and accepting forgiveness. In this story it’s gonna take a coupla generations and forty years of schlepping. A road, a long one, to the promised land. Moses, pleading for them, gets HaShem to say yes to coming along as witness, guide, protector.
Interestingly this same reading includes the thirteen attributes of mercy (rachamim in Hebrew, a lovely sounding word), including compassion, mercy, graciousness, truth, forgiveness, and pardon.
Imagine if those qualities organized your life, your head, and your heart. Imagine a world slow to anger. Imagine yourself slow to anger.
When Moses returns, his face is so touched with holy light that the people, albeit guilty and ashamed, cannot look directly at him. His face also gets red with wrath as he breaks the tablets.
There was a great NPR riff the other day (though it may have been on Bluff the Listener) about an app that lets you see what someone else sees when they’re watching you. How you look when flushed with joy, red with anger, or blushing in shame. A chance to witness yourself as others see you.
My family didn’t do anger with sound. Instead people retreated to their corner with a book. No eye contact. The app would not have shown their inner turmoil, that churning of anxiety, guilt, and fear of future consequences, even if apologies were said and officially accepted.
External forgiveness is great. But it doesn’t really take hold until you forgive yourself. Imagine extending the thirteen qualities of mercy towards yourself. Imagine being able to bathe in them, wash clean your bad choices and your mistakes. Whatever you said or did not undone but cleared of its power to influence your next forty years. Imagine mercy that releases their hold on your heart.
It takes time for a new equilibrium to settle in. We’ve all learned from our personal shlepping that the road is rarely smooth and level. There are always more tests, reality checks large and small, to test our resolve. But if we let mercy in, and our commitment to change is strong, we can move from this now to a better next.