Forgiving and Forgetting in Parshat Sh’lach L’cha

angry-crowdSix congregants were on the phone line to discuss Parshat Sh’lach L’cha. We pictured the awful scene: Moses and Aaron falling to their faces, Joshua and Caleb rending their clothes, a community threatening to stone their own leaders. Moses, asking God to forgive the cowardice and the craziness, and God relenting – partially.

There was much conversation about knowing how and when to forgive. When do those who oppose us function as dark angels with important messages? When are aggressive, angry people actually teaching us how to respond firmly and clearly to unhealthy rage and unwarranted destruction? When must we stand fast, insist on light and right?

One imagines what it took for Moses to stand again, to turn from the people prepared to stone him and his brother and to plead with his (and their) God. Pardon them. Pardon them, please, again. As you have since they left Egypt, as you have according to Your great kindness (Numbers 14:19).

No wonder, given the multitude of cascading transgressions we commit each year, that we quote this very plea after Kol Nidre. We must trust in God’s forgiveness.

Finally, I asked, “Do we need to discuss the Sabbath breaker?” Perhaps I imagined the collective breath; I certainly heard one familiar voice say firmly, “yes.”

There is no forgiveness this time.

The very community that indulged in collective cowardice now (perhaps?) does so again. They bring the Sabbath breaker before Moses and place him under guard, “for it was not clear what should be done to him” (Numbers 15:34).

YHVH issues judgment. The man is to be stoned to death. This time, the community does exactly as commanded.

One congregant points out that God Godself took the first Shabbat rest. Humans were created in God’s image, he says. They were asked only to be godly. Here, an Israelite flaunts everything, the whole project, the extraordinary gift of the Law given by God at Sinai. This one Israelite has spurned the first, fundamental act of God after creation is completed. God blessed that day, declared it holy. This is, the congregant points out, serious stuff.

But another notes that the Sabbath breaker could hardly have predicted the outcome of his transgression – after all, even the community does not know what to do with him at first. Why must YHVH be so severe?

A third asks: Why didn’t anyone speak up? We’ve seen Moses appeal to God’s ego to dissuade YHVH from destroying the entire people. In the face of this judgment against one man, Moses is silent. Aaron is silent. The people are silent. Why?

We acknowledge that the text comes from the Priestly school of writers. My congregants know by now that the Priestly school was all about institutionalizing the Sabbath, brit milah, Temple sacrifice and Temple ritual. Nevertheless, another congregant points out the obvious: Later redactors left this story in our Torah – and they sanctified it by doing so.

More discussion, and we are still unsure, at odds with ourselves. Can we accept the severity of this decree as a warning that the Sabbath was critical to our survival – that without its practice we, too, would die? Does the gift – and the observance – of the Sabbath ensure the life of our very souls?

Humans, so the saying goes, call out: “How long, oh Lord? How long?” And God answers back: “How long, humankind? How long?”

In his novel, The Buried Giant, writer Kazuo Ishiguro describes a post-Arthurian world suffering from forgetfulness. Characters struggle to remember what happened just hours earlier. Their past is barely present to them. Every memory they think they have is mere speculation.

At one point, an elderly couple discusses the possibility that it is God who is causing the mist that takes their memories. Perhaps God is angry about something we’ve done, one says. Or maybe God isn’t angry, but just ashamed. The other doesn’t understand: Why, then, doesn’t God merely punish humanity? Why make everyone forget?

“Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, of something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget,” the first answers. “…when God won’t remember, it’s no wonder we’re unable to do so.”

Sometimes, our texts describe God ashamed. I was wrong to shrink the light of the moon, God says in one midrash and the Holy One even asks that a sacrifice be brought God’s own account, no less: “The Holy Blessed One said: bring an expiation for me because I diminished the moon… (Bereshit Rabba 6:1,4)

Sometimes, our texts describe God hiding from us: “But your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God / Your sins have made Him turn His face away / And refuse to hear you” (Isaiah 59:2). God turns away from our crimes– perhaps in order to forget they ever occurred? How else could God go on?

A community rejects its charge and then turns on its leaders, threatening to kill them for asking for their courage and their faith. God forgives, partially, but soon after commands that same community to kill one of its members. Does the wrong done warrant this judgment or has God, tested by the people’s own spinelessness and aggression, simply forgotten forgiveness? When God turns from humanity, does God begin to forget Godself?

When we forget what makes us divine, do we forget ourselves?

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