News & Views Making Atonement for God’s Imperfect World
Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)
It was classic. Two strikes. Two outs. A runner on second in extra innings of the little league championship game. If my son’s team could get one more strike, they would extend the game.
The pitcher threw a perfect pitch, but the batter connected solidly, hitting a line drive up the middle. It was most likely hopeless as soon as it went past the infield, but the center fielder and catcher did their part valiantly, as the kid in the outfield made an accurate throw to home and the catcher made a diving attempt to tag the runner, who touched home plate just ahead of the tag. My son’s team had lost the little league championship.
The kids were heartbroken. They shed the requisite tears and we parents said the requisite platitudes about playing the game the right way and getting them next year. The main feeling I had though was not sadness and disappointment. Instead, I mainly felt gratitude and relief. No one had screwed up to end the game.
I kept imagining if the ball had been hit to someone who could have made the final out to end the inning but had dropped the ball, or let it go through his legs, which easily could have happened at this level. Learning to deal with the emotional challenge of an error in the midst of a game is an important, if hard, life experience. Making an error to lose the championship, even as a kid, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Being a Red Sox fan for the last 40 years is one of the ways I learned that lesson.
Failures in sports, and life, are inevitable, yet so many of us seem to have a tendency to overly focus on and hold on to them. We look in the mirror and often can barely see past the blemishes. We reflect on our careers and relationships, too easily find confirmation of our unsuitability, and fear we will be unmasked as the imposters part of us is sure we are.
I have come to think that we carry an irredeemable sense of being unworthy that is paradoxically connected to, and maybe even is caused by, our sense that we are or should be perfect. We carry a misguided assumption of a pristine self – of a person who should somehow be more than we are. The brokenness is then shocking, shameful and somehow a definitive statement of the self when held up to the impossible standard of delusional perfection. The result is we pathologize imperfection, as if there is something abnormal about it.
There is a very strange moment in the parashah this week that addresses this human tendency. In explaining how to celebrate the New Moon each month, the Torah says that the Israelites should bring a goat as a purification offering. However, in contrast to every other time a purification offering is prescribed in the Torah, in this case the Torah adds that the purification offering is “for God” (Numbers 28:15). While one could easily dismiss this addition or explain it away, Rabbi Shimon bar Lakish (Resh Lakish) in the Talmud offers a daring and radical interpretation. He suggests that the purification offering “for God” should not be understood as an offering ‘to God’ but rather an offering ‘on God’s behalf.’ The offering is to atone for something God has done (B. Chullin 60b).
How could this possibly be the case? How might we have to understand God and the world for this to be a plausible understanding of the Torah’s instructions to human beings?
The Talmud has a proposal. Resh Lakish’s wild theological suggestion builds from a Talmudic discussion about conflicting statements in the Book of Genesis’ tale of creation. The Torah says that God made two “great lights” (Genesis 1:16) on the fourth day of creation, referring to the sun and the moon. The verse goes on to say, “the greater light to rule the day and the smaller light to rule the night.” Which is it, asks Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi? Are they both great or is only the sun great? Answering his own question, Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi proposes that God originally created the sun and the moon as equals but then diminished the moon. God was responding, in this myth, to the moon suggesting that it is not possible for the sun and moon to rule together. Sadly, the moon was inconsolable as a result of being lessened. To atone for how God hurt the moon, God then gives instructions to bring a purification offering on God’s behalf each new moon.
The theological and teleological implications are significant. God, and the world, are imperfect. Not because human beings have screwed it up, though we certainly have, but because God made it that way, purposefully or not, from the beginning. For human beings, the monthly offering we are to bring to God – on God’s behalf – suggests that our role is to work with God to continue to transform creation. In effect, writes Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his classic work Halakhic Man, it “adorn[s] [human beings] with the crown of creator and maker.”
To fulfill this role, we first must confront the reality of imperfection. We must acknowledge that we live in a fundamentally flawed world and that we and God are imperfect. This stance is one that understands imperfection not as bug, but as a feature, or at least part of, not a deviation from, creation. In bringing an offering to atone for the reality of imperfection, we not only confront it, we also try to forgive it – in ourselves, the world, God. This acknowledgment and forgiveness, as opposed to primarily anger, shame and alienation, enables ongoing relationship with our imperfect reality and, we hope, more capacity to work to heal our broken world.
Rabbi Daniel Klein, Rab`10, MJEd`10, is Associate Dean for Admissions & Student Life at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.