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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

A Life for At-One-Ment

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 5, 2008


            Yesterday, Elizabeth and I reenacted our yearly ritual of taking our two mothers (who are now 88 and 86, respectively) to pick apples. (Actually, we don’t pick anything; we go and buy apples-- and pumpkins, and cider, and mums, and sometimes a bale of hay—though not this year). We probably visit a good dozen orchards and greenhouses in the process, finding a little something at most, if not all, of them.

 

            In so doing, our journey encompasses a good chunk of the state of Rhode Island (which is not as impressive as saying, “a good chunk of the state of Alaska ,” I know, but we still make a day of it). Most of the places we visit are in an area known, appropriately enough, as “Apple Valley”, in the north-central part of the state, and several of our favorites are in the town of Smithfield , in particular.

 

            As part of our ritual, whenever we drive past Smithfield High School , I remark solemnly: “You know, I taught there in the 1970s.”  I say it every time, every year, lest those I am with forget such an important milestone in the development of western civilization. Except this year, my mother-in-law beat me to it, and remarked, a full quarter mile before we got to the high school, “Jeffrey, didn’t you teach here in the 1970s?” She kind of stole my thunder, and reduced me to muttering, “Uh, yeah, I guess I did.”

 

            I am thinking about those days at Smithfield High today, in the context of the Jewish High Holy Days, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in particular, because, you know, every time I drive past that building, I can smell the chalk dust.

 

            I remember, when I teaching at Smithfield High back in the 1970s, that by the end of the day, I always felt as though I was covered with chalk dust (we used to have real black boards back then, not the dry erase type they have today). You’d write the lesson on the board, and finish with it, and go on to the next… class after class…. all day… But there was always the dust, the residue of past lessons, which was always there to haunt you, and make you sneeze, and dirty up your glasses.

 

            Haven’t you ever been in a class with a teacher who never washed the blackboard? He’d just quickly erase it, and go on to the next lesson, leaving shadows of past lessons getting thicker and thicker as the year went by—till you weren’t sure any more which lesson you were supposed to be looking at. There was just this indistinguishable gray fog of lessons past and present…

 

            I think that’s what we all look like on the inside, too—psychologically, spiritually—if we don’t wipe the slate clean from time to time.

            That’s what life would be like if we didn’t take times of atonement, times to start over, holy days like Yom Kippur, which our Jewish friends and relatives will be celebrating starting Wednesday, or Ramadan, which our Muslim neighbors celebrated from September 1st through September 30th this year.

 

            We’ll always have the dust and residue of the past—the “baggage”, maybe even the “garbage” of the past—there for us to deal with. Sometimes, we really have to work at it, and scrub the slate clean, to have any chance at all to move forward. It’s only if we do deal with it, somehow, that we’ll have any hope of inner peace, any hope of gaining that sense of harmony or balance with life; some sense of atonement with one another and with that greater Spirit of Life in whom we live and move and have our being.

 

            “Atonement” sounds at first like a pretty heavy theological word, and maybe one that some of us aren’t too comfortable with. It might smack too much of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and his “atonement”, his dying for the sins of all humanity. But, of course, that’s not what is meant by the Jewish “Day of Atonement”.

 

            I think to get a better idea of what atonement means in the broader sense, we need to look at the word itself: “atonement”—at-one-ment. It’s about becoming one—reconciled—returning to being at one with our Creator, all creation, and with those with whom we share this creation.

 

            Last Monday, September 29th, marked Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the first of High Holy Days which concludes with Yom Kippur. During this span of ten days, Jews around the world mark the beginning of the year 5769 in their calendar. During this period, according to Jewish tradition, God looks into our human hearts and examines both our deeds and our motives. During this time, too, we are asked to sit in judgment on ourselves, and compare our conduct during the past year with the hopes and resolutions that we have made. It is a time for fasting and penance, deep soul searching and contemplation.

 

But what use does it do, we may well ask? What good are these holy days, if after 5768 years of them-- all this introspection and penance and fasting and seeking atonement-- all this trying to put our acts together-- what good do they do, if after all this religious zeal-- this world of ours is still so darn messed up? Have we really made that much progress in these past 5768 years? Why bother with the ritual one more time? Does it do any good? Why bother wiping the slate clean, and pledging to begin again in love, if we're probably going to end up in the exact same place (or pretty close to it) a year from now?

Those are not bad questions to ask. They’re good questions, honest questions. We are a questioning, honest people, and so, I'm sure we all ask them from time to time...

 

Once upon a time, a rabbi and one of the members of his congregation (who happened to be a soap maker) went out for a walk. The member of the congregation was asking his rabbi very similar questions:

"Look at the world, rabbi" the man said. "Look at all the trouble and misery in the world. It's still there, after all these years of teaching and preaching about goodness and peace and atonement. What use is faith, then, rabbi?" the man asked. "What good has it done?"

 

The rabbi didn't say anything for a while, and the two men went on in silence, but then, as they walked, the rabbi noticed a young child, playing in the gutter by the side of the road.

 

"Look at that child!" said the rabbi. "You say that soap makes people clean, but look at how filthy that boy is! What good is soap? With all the soap there is the world, why are there still so many dirty people in the world? It makes me wonder, sometimes, just how effective soap really is after all."

 

"But rabbi," objected the soap maker, "soap doesn't do any good unless it's used!"

 

"Exactly," said the rabbi. "So it is with faith."

 

On the Day of Atonement, we are invited to build together the bridge of our shared imperfection, over which we can meet one another and strive to walk forward into a new year together. We are invited to re-weave the web of our deep and profound interconnections with one another.

 

It is not an easy bridge to build. It is not an easy turn to make. We are asked to weave this interconnected web with strands that have been stretched to the breaking point, and which are so delicate, and brittle, and oftentimes frayed, and which can be tangled, and twisted, and tied in such difficult knots.

 

Is there any human endeavor any more time consuming and frustrating than sorting through a mass of rope, or wire, or yarn, or Christmas lights (!) that have become all tangled up? It’s so hard sometimes, to undo the mess and get things sorted out and functional again.

 

That’s how it is with our emotional and psychological selves, as well: tied in knots; tangled up; sometimes a pretty unholy mess. They’re so hard to sort through; time consuming; frustrating; demanding. So, very often, we just toss the whole mass back into our psychological cellars, or stuff it up in our mental attics, and try to forget about it. And we leave the issues involved completely unresolved.

 

It’s easier not to build that difficult bridge to reconciliation if that means we have to deal with all those issues in our souls—our sins of commission and our sins of omission; the hurts others have dealt to us; the times we have let others down.

 

So, we back away from the precipice, and turn, not toward new life and new possibilities, but toward the same dead ends and roads to nowhere we’ve been down so many times before.

Sometimes it's hard to let go because the past is just too much with us. There are too many vestiges of the past, still present in our lives, for us even to be able to glimpse that there truly might be a different road ahead of us.

 

There are those old hurts that just keep coming back, again and again, as much as we might wish them out of the way... the words of criticism that someone uttered against us, that should be dead and gone (as, perhaps the people who uttered them are already) but which, somehow, carved their places in our memories and on our minds... the grievance we hold against someone that, if truth be told, we kind of enjoy nursing and rehearsing and replaying over and over again, and holding in store, just in case we need to use it against them some day... the opportunities that we had but didn't take, and the regret and the hunger that keeps coming back to haunt us...

 

That’s why it’s so important to take those opportunities we have to get out the erasers and scrub the blackboard clean. That’s why faith, and ritual, and days of atonement are so very important to us as spiritual men and women. That is where our hope lies. Yom Kippur gives us the chance to take out the sponge, and the soap, and wash the slate clean, so that we can at least have a prayer of learning our next lessons well.

 

As Rabbi Isaac Stahl has written:

 

“Our life is brief and finite. Why allow it to become a collection of hurt and grudges? In the very depths of your soul, dig a grave. Let it be as some forgotten spot to which no path leads. And there in the eternal silence, bury the wrongs which you have suffered. Your heart will feel as if a load has fallen from it.”

 

Once we have buried that load of past hurts, we are liberated, and energized, to reach out and do something about the wrongs we have done unto others.

 

Now, sometimes, self judgment is the worst kind, the most bitter of all-- because, after all, we know ourselves better than anyone else does, don't we? We know, better than anyone, those deep, dark recesses of our souls, where little light can penetrate at times. Sometimes, this is not a pretty picture for any of us to want to face.

 

If we focus only on our failures, our limitations, our spites and smallness, then we might come to the false conclusion that we, too, are "unforgiven"-- or even, that we're “unforgiveable”, that we’re not worth forgiving.

 

But the central affirmation of our faith declares that this is just isn’t so. Our faith tells us that while we may often be messed-up creatures at times-- capable, God knows, of great evil and selfishness, each and every one of us—that there is, shining in our souls, the light of the inherent worth and dignity of each and every person on this earth. That light shines still, though in too many lives, the darkness seems to overwhelm it.

 

That is the spirit that lies at the heart of Yom Kippur, it seems to me.

It is not a story of human perfection, or even human perfectibility. Nor is it a vision of humankind as impotent and weak, irrevocably tied to sin and depravity.

 

It is a vision of fallible human beings, like you and me, who fall short countless times, but who always have within themselves the capacity to learn, the power to change, and the ability to put one foot in front of the other and walk down a new road, one step at a time.

 

Walking the road of these days of ours can often be a struggle, true. But what of it? Evolution is about struggle. Being human is about struggle. We have not yet arrived. We are always on the path. That doesn't make us evil. It only makes us human.

 

Because we know we are called to struggle (and journey and grow and evolve) we know, too, that there is so much life in us-- and so much potential, and so many precious gifts of life that we are offered, and that we have to offer to others.

 

So aspire we human ones do—constantly, endless, year after year, and day after day: to do better, to be better, to learn more. On Yom Kippur, we remember that to aspire is a holy act-- indeed, perhaps the most holy act of our human be-ing (our being human) in this world.

 

At Yom Kippur, the voice of the Holy calls us back to our genuine humanness, and our genuine love and compassion for one another.


 


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