Hardening The Heart

My idea of Yom Kippur isn’t an exercise in grinding my soul or breaking my spirit. One minute watching the ten o’clock news or a passing glance at my grandmother in the mirror will do that. I think Yom Kippur comes to help me understand a world I didn’t make and yet am responsible for making.

God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and keeps doing it again and again. When we sit at the Seder at the opposite end of the year, pleasantly blotto, we wonder why, if God hardens, God doesn’t also soften. “Let this people go.” “Okay.” Such a scenario puts humankind out of work. God may harden hearts. It’s our job to soften them, and that often against our instincts for self-preservation. On Wednesday afternoon, Robin and I looked up the literal meanings of the words in the Ashamnu. There it was, hardness of the neck. Now we don’t have to turn our heads to look at the pain of others.

Nature worship doesn’t soften. Anyone who thinks it does hasn’t seen the deer eating every one of my forty-five-dollar-apiece green tomatoes.

And here, on Yom Kippur, stand the sins: pride, anger, lying, Lashon Ha-ra, envy, despair. Look at how ordinary these are, how normal. Joanne, you will never be five foot two, 108 pounds, and cute as hell. These feelings aren’t newcomers. They’ve been there all along. They come with all the comparisons we make. Albert says, “Look at all the hair on that guy’s head.” So when I read “choose life,” I have to choose it on its terms, not mine.

What a joy, what a mechaih it would be to appreciate beauty, health, wealth, talent, and luck in ourselves and others disinterestedly, as a blessing for the world, and not as a measure against which we must always fail. What a relief when lust turns to love and gives wholeheartedly. What a liberation to turn from the white hot rage and see clearly and take a breath. So here are the sacrifices and the prayers and the priests in the temple and the Azazael goat and the tashlich bread floating down on the river and killing the fish with the rotten thing I said last year.

The goat and the bread and the priests don’t drive away the sin because it’s already been sinned. The little murders I do with my mouth a day, a week, a month, a decade ago have remained. I’m sorry—utterly. Now what? Please, God, no more. I want to be free of the sin itself. My prayer is for that.

Rabbis sometimes address us as a holy congregation. That phrase always gave me the restless twitch. The English term may be mutating the meaning into something the originators never meant. Holy, in English implies purity, freedom from the contamination by sin and evil, spiritual perfection and perfect conformity to the will of God. Mazel Toy and Fraitzech mit der bubbe.

Now go to the Hebrew on your stereo set and you’ll hear the definition as a separation from the grinding, necessary daily considerations. This I can live with and it doesn’t clash with the decor.

Because I always thought that we are dumber than we are evil. My proof is that if you call someone evil, he will hang his head. If you call her stupid, she will hit you with a brick.

On the other side of the self-destruction of ordinary stupidity stand happiness and self-respect, waiting for us. We call it the urge atonement.