The tabernacle was brand-new. Everyone had contributed some way: they’d sewn something or cooked something, they’d donated money or personal valuables. And then during the opening ceremony fire came down from heaven and landed right on the altar they had built!
It was a structure, a power the world had never seen before. And Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu the priests, did something wrong. And then they were gone. No warning. No lesson.
And there was Aharon. Shocked silent. Grieving his boys. And grieving that the G-d he loved so much, who he had followed into the desert was responsible.
Could you have stayed and served that G-d? Could I have?
And then G-d to reached out. First with the warning that was never so explicitly given to Nadav and Avihu and then with instructions for a process of reconciliation: Thus only shall Aaron enter the Tabernacle: with a bull of the herd for a cleansing offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
As the parsha, today’s parsha continues, the process becomes more and more complex – step after step of sacrifices, incense, bathing, and even a goat being set free in the wilderness.
And then finally, 29 verses later, the Torah tells us:
And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; … For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the LORD.
Why does it take the Torah 29 verses to say that this whole process is related to Yom Kippur?
I think the obvious reason is because we’re not supposed to wait until Yom Kippur to fix our mistakes, to apologize or to forgive, to reconcile – the process needs to start right away.
So what does that mean for us – without incense or goats? What does our process look like? The liturgy is clear וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה: For the moment, I’m going to leave these terms untranslated so that we can unpack them a bit
Also although we generally think of teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah as three distinct actions, I’m starting to believe they are three elements of one single process.
Let’s first look at tzedakah. Most of us think of tzedekah as charity, which is how it has come to be understood idiomatically, but at its root in Hebrew it means: Justice.
adrienne maree brown, writer, activist, and justice scholar, teaches that there are three types of jutsice.
When we think of justice we most often think of crime and an appropriate punishment. This is punitive justice. The one who does harm pays a price. Fair? Well, what about the person who was harmed? How do they benefit? What good does “an eye for an eye” do for the person who lost their eye in the first place?
Our sages also thought this was problematic – “never let it enter your mind,” they said “that an ‘eye for an eye’ actually means that.” Rather, they said, “you should compensate the one who you injured equal to what you’ve deprived them of including but not limited to the value of their livelihood and their emotional distress.”
The Talmudic version is restorative justice. Restorative justice is so much better for the person who was hurt/experienced loss; but what of a case like Jean Valjean – even if he buys the baker a new loaf of bread, where is his own next meal going to come from? What is one less loaf for the baker compared to the life of his daughter? Is it crazy to expect that he might steal again tomorrow?
The third kind of justice TRANSFORMATIVE JUSTICE seeks to address the harm AND the roots of the harm-doing. It addresses both impact AND intention. It is supervised by the community, by people who support BOTH those who have been harmed and those who have caused harm. If you want to teach a child not to hit, isn’t spanking sending at the very least a mixed message? If you want to each people how to better care for each other, you must begin by caring for them.
Avraham was tried to kill both sons. Each time an angel intervened. According to the midrash, Avraham’s own father tried to kill him – tried to throw him in a furnace. This may help us to explain his behavior, even if it doesn’t excuse it. The Bible doesn’t tell us how Avraham reconciled with his boys, but we know that he must have. When the time came his sons came together with their own children to bury him in a “good old age.”
Maybe this is the mystical meaning of the blessing he received after the akedah, that because he was willing to let others show him how he was hurting his sons, and maybe he even took the time to mourn the ways he was abused as a child, G-d blessed him to change. To heal. To have his boys and their descendants see him for his limitless kindness and not just the ways he’d hurt them.
I know that this concept of “transformative justice” may sound naïve or fluffy; it’s so contrary to everything we’re taught and to so many of our own instincts. We accumulate so many small hurts that go unaddressed: The parent who doesn’t remember the date of your birthday; overhearing your co-workers make jokes about your weight; the job for which you were perfect but you didn’t get; and you’re left to wonder why with only your insecurities AND your suspicions.
When we’re finally hurt in a big visible way, we want PUNITIVE justice. With our partners and families and best friends this results in the frantic screaming of a big list: It starts with “Why am I the only one to ever make the bed?!” which rapidly becomes “…and you never do the dishes”and then “…and why are you always on your phone when I’m trying to talk to you about anything … You don’t care about anyone but yourself…!”
And when a stranger hurts us we want to see them get punished – fines, jail, whatever – for all the justice denied us in the in-between moments, for all the unseen grievances.
But when I scream a laundry list of things that have annoyed/hurt me at my spouse, I’m creating the conditions in which she can’t fix it. I deny myself “justice.” The choice in that moment becomes a. apologize for it all right now and fix it all by changing yourself completely, (impossible) or b. do nothing. The former leaves her with no motivation to try and make the bed because after all that even if she makes the bed, she’s still just a person who can’t do anything right. And the latter just confirms all my worst anxieties and insecurities.
The same is true of criminal justice. A petty thief locked up and abused becomes hardened and dangerous.
So, what then, are we supposed host a tea party for a murderer? Try to talk it out?
The magic of transformative justice, says Mia Mingus of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, is that “handling the small things and addressing them well can help to prevent the big things … Going back to the basics, how do we build good communication skills, how do we build the skill set to give a good apology, what does it look like to have generative conflict with people in our everyday lives, how do we talk about accountability and help and support each other to heal with the people in our everyday lives.
“When people think about TJ [transformative justice] they automatically connect to the most horrific forms of violence … but so much of our work is building the foundation that we need for transformative justice. And if we all rush to the crisis, we miss the sustainable things everyday things that … when they ripple out are a bigger force. That can change things.”
Sometimes this approach means we will have to listen and change when someone tells us we’vehurt them, insulted them, embarrassed them or let them down. This is so hard – when we’reconfronted, most of us [or maybe just me?!] first react by becoming defensive – throwing the ways that person has failed us in the past back at them. But that doesn’t heal what has hurt them, it doesn’t create an opportunity for us to deal with a past grievance, and it squanders a perfectly good opportunity for our own growth.
Sometimes, we will have to have the courage to tell people when they’ve hurt us even in very small ways, even though it is hard and we wonder whether we’ll lose a connection with them because they won’t be able to handle our hurt and the way they contributed to it.
This is the meaning of teshuva “return”– returning to each other again and again. Demonstrating that the relationship is more important than the discomfort or the pain. It means returning to our values and hopes again and again and again and putting that at the center of how we resolve conflict.
And this is the meaning of tefilah – the Hebrew root of the word tefilah means “to judge” but it is most often found in its reflexive construction – meaning that tefilah is at its core a process of self-discernment. Asking ourselves, “what am I bringing into this conflict – what parts of my anger and hurt are about what transpired between us, and what parts are about unaddressed hurts from my past?” What can my loved one help heal and what do I need to heal myself?
Tzedekah also shares a root with tzaddik, a righteous person. Tzedakah, justice, is in the end about right relationships, about having the self-love to ask for our loved ones to stop harming us and taking accountability for the ways we are hurting them. Every transformative justice process is different, and many times the goal doesn’t have to be for the people in conflict to fix their relationship but rather for them both to be able to be in right relationship with their larger community – accountable and cared for.
That is the essence of today’s al chet – we don’t say “chatati” “I have missed the mark” we say “chatanu,” “we have missed the mark.” We all have the responsibility and the power to make our communities, families and relationships safe, strong, and loving.
The author of “Unetaneh tokef” was so wise. They wrote:
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֽוֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה
“Teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah push off the severity of the decree.” The litugust isn’t saying these paths nullify the decree. Just that it pushes off the harshness of it. Aharon will never get his sons back. The hole in his heart will never go away.
Our hurts are real. Even when we are transformed, they never leave us – they make us. We are our scars as much as we are our smiles. But we can make push off the severity of the decree – we can stop doubling down on the pain by pushing away each other – by making it impossible to hold people accountable for the ways they’ve hurt us or impossible to fix what we’ve broken. We can stay connected to each other just like G-d and Aharon did. Because we need each other. Because our love can inspire those people who have hurt us to believe they can change – that there is a future waiting for them that they want to be a part of. And we who have been hurt deserve to be empowered to see that we can help make things right for ourselves and for those who have caused us harm.
And that’s why the revelation of Yom Kippur comes at the end of 29 lines of process. To tell us that no matter what, whether we try and fail or don’t try at all – no matter what, we are loved by G-d and we are worthy and we are special. But, if we do try and we put in the work to heal together – instead of being left “outside the camp” – just like Aharon, we can get drawn into the kodesh kodashim, the holy of holies – real intimacy. And there we can reveal our innermost holiest selves to one another, and that is the deepest, most powerful, life-affirming and transformative joy we can ever know.