Amazing and Improbable Transformations
By Rabbi Juan Mejia
Be'chol Lashon Southwest Regional Director
Change is an inevitable part of our lives. Most changes, however, happen to us from the outside: we age, we move, the world changes around us regardless of our desires to frame it in a moment. And yet, the most meaningful changes are often those that we set in motion on our own: our voluntary transformations. In the Jewish tradition, there is a set time for collective soul-searching and metamorphosis geared towards a positive transformation of ourselves and the world around us. As we transition from one year the next, we enter a time of surprises and changes, of recreation and reformation.
Central to the liturgy of the New Year is a recurrent Medieval poem which describes God as "a King sitting in a throne of Mercy" (Melekh yoshev 'al kisse Rachamim). This concept of a “throne of Mercy” is taken from the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3b) when God´s daily schedule is described in detail. After dedicating a fourth of His day to learning Torah, "for the next three hours He sits and judges the entire world. When He sees that world is so guilty that it deserves destruction, He rises from the throne of Judgment and sits on the throne of Mercy." In a time when we Jews are looking to forgive and be forgiven, such language is comforting.
But there is something awkward about “a throne of Mercy.” Throughout the Bible and Midrash, the idea of a throne is associated with judgment and power. Kings, including the King of King of Kings (God), sit in high and lofty thrones that separate them from the ground. It is from this high and separate place where they dispense justice to the people below. Akin to the bench of the judge in most Western courts, the throne is a symbol of the power possessed by one party and not possessed by the other. Power and judgment seem to depend on differences, on distances and on separation; ideas we seldom associate with mercy, which we imagine thriving in contact and intimacy. As any playground kid knows, forgiveness (mercy´s delicious byproduct) is never really true unless sealed by that handshake or, better yet, that hug. And yet it is incredibly difficult to shake or hug someone who is sitting high above you in a throne.
Thus, the idea of a throne of mercy seems strange, even oxymoronic. And yet, precisely because of this contradictory nature, this image seems to be a perfect metaphor for the time of the High Holidays and the possibilities it encapsulates. The Jewish idea of repentance, teshuvah, is connected to the view of our own free will and our power to create- a power we share exclusively with God. Although we are constrained by limitations set by our physical, social and behavioral surroundings, there is a component in us that is absolutely free and, at any moment, can choose to act in a completely unexpected way. We can change, at the drop of a hat, from our bad habits to positive and good behavior. In the same way that a throne does not seem a fitting tool of mercy but rather just the opposite, the power of repentance is such that it can alter the expected shape and function of an object into something that it did not seem it had the power to be.
In the Talmudic story discussed above, this surprising metamorphosis is something that happens daily. So too, repentance is a power ever possible and ever present in our lives. However, this wondrous act of transformation is made so much more powerful when it goes viral and the entire Jewish people does it together. That is the true power of the High Holidays: focusing the entire attention and energy of a people into the sole purpose of betterment and transformation. And when we, collectively as well as individually, choose to do something unexpected and seek for unity instead of division, for connection instead of hierarchy, for closeness instead of judgment, our true potential as a people and as Jews becomes unlocked.
My personal blessing for these powerful days, pregnant with possibilities, is that we look into those things that we think as unchangeable and set in our lives: our surroundings and ethnicity, our situation and our language.
And like the throne of Judgement, see ourselves transformed into an improbable but amazing new people with less hangups, less distance between us and other Jews, between us and our fellow human beings.
Shenizke leshanim rabbot tovot vene'imot. May we merit many good and pleasant years in which to fulfill this potential.
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