Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cleansing the Altar, and the Anvil Too

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Some interrelated thoughts for today, which is Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that I kind of wish every year was one of my own. First of all, the text:



Okay, so that's not the actual text; as Noah Millman helpfully reminded us in his post today, the real textual basis for the holiday Yom Kippur is Leviticus 16:18-22. And the meaning he takes from that text is very different from the one which Northern Exposure provided me with when I first saw the above episode (titled "Shofar, So Good") nearly twenty years ago. But I love the show's portrayal of the Day of Atonement nonetheless, and not just because I'm a huge fan of A Christmas Carol. No, I love it also because it's just a wonderful combination of whimsy, misanthropy, ordinary realism, religious respect, and moral seriousness. (The above clip, while it conveys the main message of the episode, actually leaves out the entire best subplot, which is Holling's feelings of guilt and shame over a child he'd never known, and the way Ed becomes a scapegoat for him.) I've never pretended to be anything other than a holiday enthusiast, happily borrowing them wherever I can, and finding in them whatever meaning I may; Yom Kippur is a holiday that, for me at least, invites just such an appropriation. I want to be reminded, viscerally, ritually, of the need I have for atonement, for resolution, for forgiveness. Mormons get reminded of it every week as we take the sacrament, and I love that ritual, but perhaps because of its very ordinariness it often--for me, anyway--lacks real weight. The call of the Shofar and the recitation of the Shema Yisrael...well, that's not something one can easily elide.

But back to Noah's interpretation of the scriptural text, which departs slightly from Northern Exposure's more traditional focus on prayer and personal atonement. He asks, intriguingly, just what the atonement, the scapegoat, is for. His answer is, it's not for the person, or the people. It's for the altar:

If you look closely at the text, what you’ll see is that the scapegoat ritual isn’t about atoning for the people, and taking away their sin from them, but about atoning for the altar. That’s what it says: the priest “shall go out unto the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it”....What on earth does that mean?

When someone transgresses, and performs a sin offering to atone, the offering is not a penance, something the person gives up to make up for the sin, nor is it a bribe to the judge, something God finds pleasing and that will encourage His mercy. Rather, the blood of the offering is a kind of spiritual cleanser, which takes the residue of sin off the sinner. So where does it go? It goes, with the blood, onto the altar.

Which is why, once a year, the priest needs to make atonement for the altar, to cleanse it of the sins of the people that have accumulated over the year. It’s like cleaning the filter. The scapegoat ritual transfers these accumulated sins to the goat, so that the altar can continue to do its job of receiving the residue of sin for another year.....

We moderns...don’t think we can cleanse ourselves by pouring blood on an altar. But we do recognize that the need to make restitution and the need for spiritual “cleansing” are not identical processes. The one is social; the other is psychological. And we do make use of intermediaries of various sorts for that process of cleansing, whether clergy or therapists or friends and family or even objects that we imbue with the kind of spiritual power once attributed to the altar.

And those intermediaries, who have taken on the residues of our sins, also need a cleansing.

So that’s what I’m going into this Yom Kippur thinking about. Who have I been using as an altar for the past year, making them the receptacles of my guilt and frustration and anger and all the rest of it, and what can I do to help them get clean of all that...so I can go on using them for another year.


I read this post this morning, before the holiday began, and it made me think of an old line attributed to George MacDonald--that in this life, we are not always the already-tempered and helpful hammer which is shaping and pounding another, nor yet the heated and shapeless iron, in desperate need of some honing, receiving our necessary though much regretted pounding. No, sometimes we are only the anvil. I first encountered that thought when I read an old sermon by Neal A. Maxwell, an apostle in my church. I found that sermon--which is simply titled "Patience"--in a missionary apartment in South Korea close to 25 years ago, and it struck me as one of the truest things I'd ever read:

Paul, speaking to the Hebrews, brings us up short by writing that even after faithful disciples have “done the will of God...ye have need of patience” (Heb. 10:36). How many times have good individuals done the right thing only to break, or wear away, under the subsequent stress, canceling out much of the value of what they have already so painstakingly done?

Sometimes that which we are doing is correct enough but simply needs to be persisted in--patiently--not for a minute or a moment but sometimes for years. Paul speaks of the marathon of life and how we must “run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Paul did not select the hundred-yard dash for his analogy!


My mother-in-law had a saying, which was in due course passed on to my wife, Melissa, and now has become second-nature to me as well: "The problem with life is that it's so daily." Not an original insight, to be sure; millions have noted, in all sorts of ways, the real burden that comes from the repetition of ordinary responsibilities, the constant need to attend to the same, whether with family or work or anything else. I know that I often struggle with that dailiness. I actually think that I'm not doing too badly insofar as basic spiritual matters are concerned, but I also know that I get worn down by it all. And when I do, I can see that I make anvils of my wife, my children, my friends. I don't treat them badly, or at least I hope I don't...but I do dump on them, let loose my sarcasm and annoyances on them, use them as a break from needing to be, from even wanting to be, a decent person. Because I know--or at least hope--that they'll forgive me, and let me get away with being a jerk sometimes. I hammer on them, in other words; maybe what I'm hammering is me, or some unresolved issue I have at work or church or somewhere else. But I'm not doing it for them; I'm doing it for me. And that, itself, is a sin that I need forgiveness for.

So I thank Noah, and Neal Maxwell, and Northern Exposure, this Yom Kippur. The occasion of the holiday has provided me with a needed insight: that in trying to be honest and repentant of my sins, I take for granted some of those on whom I spill (metaphorical) blood, and employ (I hope at least mostly unintentionally) as anvils as I hammer out my own issues and the issues of those my church responsibilities put before me. I hope God's grace is sufficient to cleanse these anvils and altars in my life, because I love them so. I hope I can be someone else's altar and anvil as well...because that means that I'll also get some reprieve sometimes (at least once a year, if the Jews are right!) from all that hammering and blood-letting which, in this mortal coil, we probably can't ever fully avoid.

No comments: