Rabbi Arthur Waskow, in his reflection for Yom Kippur, recalls the 2-sentence short story by Franz Kafka–”One day a leopard came stalking into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail. Three weeks later, it had become part of the liturgy[–part of the order of worship]. ” “Our task,” Rabbi Waskow says, “in every generation, every year, is to let the leopard out of the cage of liturgy–scary, and full of life.” [tikkun.org, 9/21/16]
…A leopard came stalking into the synagogue, into the church…Can you imagine? This graceful, powerful cat, muscles rippling, huge paws reaching out, silently padding its way down the aisle,….Stalking into the sanctuary, roaring and lashing its tail… scary and full of life…turning its head and staring into our eyes, into our souls…
It would be hard to find an image or a feeling further away from our usual experience of reading the prayer of confession together on a typical Sunday morning, or the 30-60 sec. of silent reflection that follows. Some people don’t think we should even have a prayer of confession. The church has beaten down and shamed people for far too long, they say, and they wouldn’t be completely wrong. Instead of the seed of light or divinity planted in each one of us, too often the focus has been on a seed of “sin,” “original sin,” it’s sometimes called, passed down almost genetically from generation to generation. No matter how hard we try, we can’t help ourselves from sinning.
Taken to an extreme, this understanding leads to the proposition that our sin was so bad that God finally had to send Jesus to carry all that sin and take the punishment we deserve for us, because, of course, a just God would demand such a punishment. “Substitutionary atonement” is the technical term for that, in case you were wondering, and it sets up all kinds of truly scary conclusions about God.
Judaism has no concept of “original sin.” “The Jewish concept of ‘sin’ [as one rabbi explains it] is that of thinking of ourselves as an arrow aimed at a target of being the most loving and compassionate and generous person we could possibly be, but which has gone slightly off-course and is missing the target.” It’s called “repentance.” So during the High Holy Days–these days between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur 10 days later–through prayer and fasting, the intention is to get the arrow back on course–kind of a mid-course correction, if you will, “a soul tune-up.” “We search our deeds, ask God to forgive us for where we have gone astray, and seek forgiveness from each person in our lives whom we may have hurt unintentionally or, sadly, even intentionally.” [editors of Tikkun, 9/21/16]
It’s not unlike part of the process that various 12-step groups go through. Steps 8, 9, and 10 are: “made a list of all the persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them,” “made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others,” and “continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.” [from Twelve Steps, of Alcoholics Anonymous]
Jesus is also clear about dealing directly with the offenses and hurts we inflict upon one another and are inflicted with. “Be on your guard!” he warns his disciples. “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” Elsewhere, Jesus talks about clearing the air between you and another church member before you come into worship. It’s that important. It’s that hard, as immediately after he says this, Luke says that the disciples cried, “Increase our faith!” This is tough going. Remember the leopard stalking into worship.
While our Jewish brothers and sisters go deeply into these 10 High Holy Days for prayer and repentance, they are still encouraged to make daily and weekly amends. It is our custom to be reminded of the need for those “course corrections” every week, because, as Kayla McClurg writes,
Without noticing, oh so sublty, we drift away. We step around each other, uncertain how to connect, not wanting to interfere, to bear responsibility, to navigate the uncertainties. We feel the chill of increasing distance, and snuggle up closer to our jobs, our worldwide web of acquaintances, our witty and clever opinions. Like adapting to the earth’s dizzying spin, we barely notice how we slide inch by inch by slippery inch from the fundamental human connections that are given to keep us steady in the world. We don’t see or value the bridges God puts between us and among us, let alone walk across them. Even among others, we live as though alone.” [inward/outward, 9/24/16]
This process of confession and forgiving is literally “repairing the world,” as Jews understand it–tikkun. Repairing the breaches, the tears in the fabric, a mending of that which is torn. Yom Kippur is sometimes called the Sabbath of Sabbaths, a foretaste of the world to come, the return of the soul to the mother. “In some sense, one becomes angelic, purified from the transgressions of the previous year, starting anew with a clean slate.” (Eliot Wolfson, Harvard Divinity School News and Events, 9/30/16)
An important part of Yom Kippur is “getting a clearer sense of where our society has gone astray,” (Tikkun, 9/21/16) recognizing the systemic and outright injustice, cruelty, idolatry, the incredible off-course direction of our society, our culture, our world. We are part of all that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, which is why when sometimes our prayers of confession seem not to apply to us, they do. The wisdom of confession or telling the truth is that not only are we part of these systems, we must also see those who are caught up in or even perpetrating this injustice, corruption, or cruelty as wounded human beings. Otherwise, we cannot challenge them with a clear heart, we are too liable to being drawn into the injustice, corruption, and cruelty ourselves, and so repair of the fabric will not be made. There are days, like the past couple, when I feel soiled or wounded just from listening to the news. We need a daily practice of forgiveness, repentance, and letting go into the Light if we are to be able to reach the level of consciousness that will be required for this work.
“Seek the welfare of the city in which you live,” Jeremiah sent word to the exiles living in Babylon. “Build houses, marry, have children,” plant seeds of life even in the midst of a society that often seems hellbent on death. Keep on forgiving, keep on being honest with yourself and God, keep on planting seeds of light and faith in the midst of your ordinary life.
“One day a leopard came stalking into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail. Three weeks later, it had become part of the liturgy.” “Our task,” Rabbi Waskow says, “in every generation, every year, is to let the leopard out of the cage of liturgy–scary, and full of life.” What if we faced our truth fully–what we have done or should have done, what we have allowed to happen or helped to make happen, who we have become and who we might become, what kind of world we are leaving for the next generations, what kind of a community we are creating–and yes, what we have done in the past that we might still amends for–what if we faced that truth fully? Like the leopard, it is scary AND full of life. Imagine clearing out the clutter, letting go of the hurt and resentment, being freed from having to do it all at once, by yourself, being honest, getting a look at “the most loving and compassionate and generous person you could possibly be,” –and in the presence of the One whose name is Mercy, Compassion, Love, and Light, being assured without a doubt that you are loved, forgiven, set free. Halle, hallelujah!
Imagine the freedom and lightness with which we might work together to build the Beloved Community, to call our country back–or really, forward– to its highest good, to live lightly on our earth that it too might be restored. Imagine! But know that, like the leopard, or like the lion Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, who Mrs. Beaver described in awe, “He is not safe, but he is good,” know that this truth-telling and vision-clearing will not make us secure or comfortable. It will make us alive and faithful.
“Unless we let the Leopard out to roar and lash Her tail,” Rabbi Waskow warns, “unless we open ourselves up to being shaken by His passion and compassion, we find when the gates are closing at the end that we may have experienced nostalgia, but not the transformation Yom Kippur was intended to make happen.” (Ibid.) Unless we take the crucifixion of Jesus, and his willingness to trust God even in the worst the world had to offer, we will not experience the transformation of resurrection either.
“I want Jesus to walk with me….” is a song for scary times. The way is not easy. We have too often strayed from the hard road, seeking the ease of the road more traveled. My friends, I don’t have to tell you that these are troubled and troubling times. Even after the election, whoever wins, it will be a scary time, our country divided and fearful and angry, nations at war in so many ways. More than ever, we need clear hearts and minds. We must be about the daily, weekly, yearly work of repairing the breaches, the wounds, the divisions. The One who walks beside us is not afraid. The One who walks beside us has seen the worst. The One who walks beside us will help carry the load and provide all that we need. “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark