Friday, October 17, 2008

Attonement: Keeping Our Agreement

It was, Kol Nidre, the eve of Yom Kippur 1990. I knew it was a fasting day and the time for atonement. I had never fasted in my life and did not believe in it, but had decided to keep my husband company and minimize my eating to a cup of coffee and toast in the morning. However, there were other problems, such as staying a whole day in synagogue listening to and reading in a language I did not know and listening to alien creeds and prayers to a God who likes some of His children more than others, somehow different from the God I knew, and worst of all repenting from the sins of which I had no idea. Above all, where I was coming from one could not possibly commit sin a whole year around and then repents in one day.

Anyhow, sitting on the pew on the second floor mezzanine, immersed in my thoughts, wondering which one of the my deeds or thoughts or words could have been a sin, and gazing at the 600 pages book which we supposedly had to finish reading by the end of the next day, and thinking about the boredom of the day ahead, I indulged in memory of things passed, and my childhood, and school days, and the feverish hours of Persian language class with occasional charming anecdotes and tales from Saadi’s Golestan or Bustan, or Mowlana’s Masnavi.

Once Moses dreamed of a shepherd who was wandering and, as if talking to himself, addressed God very casually: “Where are you God, so I can sacrifice myself for your sake, where are you that I can put socks on you and comb your hair, at night I could prepare your bed, kiss your hand and rub your feet?” Moses, offended, reminded the shepherd of the glory and supremacy of God; and forbade him from conversing with God in such a casual way. Then it is God’s turn to scold Moses. A famous line of this narrative poetry, “You are there to connect people to us, not to disconnect them,” was used commonly to scold those who create distances and draw a line to separate people form each other.

The soft voice of Rabbi Sammy Barth brought me to myself. No, I was not day dreaming and this was not the anecdote from the Masnavi I knew. It was the Rabbi who was narrating this charming tale from a Jewish text. I extended my hand to squeeze my husband’s, which simultaneously moved towards mine. He saw the joy in my heart in my running tears, through his running tears. This anecdote, even with a very explicit reference to Moses, has gone much beyond its ethnicity and became a general tale of Iranian culture.

That night, walking home, we talked about this little shared virtue. Still worried for the list of my sins, I thought I might borrow some of my husband’s.

The day after, I joined him in the synagogue a little later. The synagogue was packed; I had to squeeze myself where ever I could find a seat. My husband was not around to guide me through the Hebrew text and show me what page or line is related to the hymns or prayers. However, I felt less awkward. I knew I was not among strangers; we shared some wisdom, if not the “sins” which was still bothering me.

Nevertheless, it was tedious and difficult to sustain a whole day. When the afternoon session started after a short break, I decided stop staring at the Hebrew text and just read the English translations of meditations. Little by little, the boredom vanished and the feeling of the previous night returned. The ethics and creeds were not much different than what I had learned; it was all the same and to the same points, towards a humane society, towards goodness, towards peace. Not cheating, not harming, not stealing and not killing, no adultery, not bearing the false witness against your neighbor, respecting our parents, worshiping God and avoid idolatry, keeping the Sabbath holy (we all keep some sort of Sabbath) were all what we human beings cherished and valued. (Yes, lying in general seems missing!)

It was towards the end of the evening, when the Rabbi gave his final talk that my worries gave way to an ease. It was then I noticed I’m a sinner just as everyone else. The Rabbi defined “sin” in terms of “breaking commitments”, any commitments including those we make to ourselves without uttering a single word.

It was a relief; I found what I was looking for. No more gaps between us, my husband and I, “we” and “them”; Jews and non-Jews. I won’t be one of the “others” and my husband won’t be thankful not to have been created like me as an “others”. I was so glad to be sinful, at least virtually. Though I was still puzzled as to why one should repent his/her sins every year and turn to commit them again. To find the answer, I tried to look into the neighboring culture to Judaism, the Iranian’s. Our Mehregan, always in the corner, in October 2nd or 3rd, coinciding with Yom Kippur every few years, might come to some help.

Like almost all Iranian holidays, it has a purely cosmological foundation, it is just the position of the earth to that of the sun. Iranians decided to dedicate this unique cosmological position to an old Yazata Mithra pastoral god who governed agreements and the contracts sealed between the nomads as to the use of pastoral land to graze their cattle’s.

In a nomadic culture when the only resource was the shared pasture, to stay within the boundaries was not only ethical but vital. To break the agreement, thus, was not only unethical but threatened the survival of others, a great violation, and in the language of the time, it was interpreted as a declaration of war.

Mithra, the pastoral god, was the declared guardian and protector of the agreed contracts. Therefore he became the presiding judge over those who broke the contract, and thus the protector of warriors who defend these agreements and fought with those who broke them, and therefore the protector of those who seek and maintain peace, and therefore love and friendship. (I hope this quick chain of title and position would take care of the information we need for the time being. For more information Mithraism by Franz Cumont is useful.)

I found it interesting that our holidays coincide with each other not only time wise, but philosophically as well, both with a great emphasis on commitment and honoring the agreements we make with ourselves and others. They both indeed happen at the beginning of wintertime, just at the threshold of the uncertainty and hazards of the cold season in which any indication of assurance would be appreciated double. It is quite significant that both holidays remind us of any neglected responsibilities and our commitments.

As to the celebration of Mehregan, the religious significance of the holiday has given way to a festivity and celebration. Even with Zoroastrians the celebratory aspect of this holiday overrides its religious aspect overwhelmingly. And equally Yom Kippur, though the religious ritual remains intact, the religious intents and ideas have become less and less paramount and more and more peripheral. I have witnessed Zoroastrians being surprised when learning of the dominant attribute of Mithra as the guardianship of oaths and agreements, and the guardianship of love and friendship has come to him only through the chain of connections. The same surprise appeared in the face of my husband when he heard superficiality and irresponsibility is a sin as well as light headedness, and many of this sort.

It might have been the way of life and the virtues we find in secular life which has transformed all the religious rituals into a mere celebration or some practices devoid of real meaning. But nevertheless, it is the deep concept to these holidays which has kept them alive up to this time, even nominally.

It has been years since that memorable Yom Kippur. Many events have happened in our life as well as in the world. As the two of us lived together in life's ups and downs, there is no need for sin to come between to make us closer to each other. There is a deeper sense of life, its meaning and its ideas as a shared treasure which connects us together. And Heaven knows how much of it has come through our reading and discussing together the literature of our cultures and faiths, and the celebration and observances of our holidays together.

Last week at the end of a long fasting day, when he seemed cleaned of all the sins he had committed, I asked him teasingly when he is going to collect new sins. With his usual humor he told me “I can’t even if I wanted to.”

“How come?” I asked

“Our sage Maimonides teaches that it is like immersing in the water to clean myself while holding an unclean animal.”

“Wow! Where did you learn that?”

“Shul,” He said.

“That means the books won’t be splashed all over. The shoes and socks won’t be all over, and dogs won’t lick all our utensils?” I asked.

“That means I keep my agreements and guard it with the price of my life.”

I squeezed his hand and I’m sure he heard the whisper of joy in my heart.

(Dedicated to Rabbi Sammy Barth.)

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