Sunday, September 17, 2006

Forgive Me

Early morning. All is quiet. Darkness has yet to yield its boorish grip on a slumbering world; the warming rays of sunshine's hope some hours away yet. An early morning fall chill permeates the air, serving the world as a gentle reminder to prepare for the upcoming winter months sure to bring much harsher weather. Yet, for an entire subset of the population, this scene is also the setting for a reminder more profound, more stirring, and even more worrying than this: Selichos!

Soon, there is a soft rustling on the street. Those punctual folk, prone to arrive a couple of minutes early even when the starting time is already an early 4:30 AM, can be seen rushing to Shul with sleepy eyes and untidy Peyos. They will get an early start in the Mikveh, immersing themselves in its warm not-yet-soiled waters with great sincerity in solemn anticipation of one of the great prayer events in the Jewish calendar: Selichos!

Soon the rustling grows louder and even louder still, until the entire neighborhood is full of the sound of old and young, tired and fresh, men and women, fathers with their children, all determinedly rushing -- amid excited whispers (the voices seemingly hushed by the darkness itself) of "Good Morning" -- to their own destination. The hubbub may resemble a mid-morning bazaar, but the darkness outside and the gravitas inside inform us of a reality more profound: Selichos!

The synagogue is full; the Rebbe appears. A silence falls over the crowd. The Chazan starts the prayers in a strong and booming voice, and the congregation follows. The hall fills with a cacophony of heart-rending cries, and the familiar and wrenching singsong and soulful chants sends a shudder down the spine: Selichos!

Amid the crowd is a boy, about fourteen, fifteen, or perhaps sixteen years of age. He, too, is swept up in the ambiance of his surroundings. Oh, how the burden of his boyish sins now weigh upon his shoulders! Oh Lord, "The soul is yours; the body -- your work; have pity..." he chants wistfully. The crowd grows louder. Soon, it becomes difficult to hear one's own voice over the din. The boy feels part of something bigger, something loftier than what human eyes can see or the human brain comprehend. He cries, he beseeches, he begs, and finally, staunchly requests: Forgive my sins, oh Lord! I will no longer spend time with worthless, earthly pursuits rather than spending the time learning Torah. I resolve no longer to have any impure thoughts, come what may. I will not hate anyone, nor hurt someone out of revenge. I promise! The atmosphere now feels elevated, spiritually rarefied. A deep inner contentment sets in, a spiritual glow that soothes the deepest parts of the soul and leaves an incredible longing for the divine and only a dull awareness of material reality. A harbinger of things to come; a good omen for the next couple of weeks -- the high-holiday season has only started, and the spiritual well is already filling. How comforting is the words spoken to our loving Father: Forgive me!

Fast-forward a couple of decades...

The setting is the same, the atmosphere identical. Everything and everyone around has gotten a bit older, a bit more tired and decrepit perhaps, but remained in essence unchanged. But the boy, oh that boy, has changed dramatically. Not that anyone could tell, of course. He appears for all the world as they would expect, with the accoutrements and necessary trappings of all other similar boys grown up in the past couple of decades. But the essence, the spirit, the very soul -- if I may call it that, that has changed. Forgive me!

You see, the boy had refused to remain forever ignorant, as is deemed proper by the spiritual leaders, the supposed wise and saintly men of great wisdom. He embarked on a long and bumpy journey to uncover the Truth. He ate from the tree of knowledge along the way, and grew progressively enlightened. He engaged his intellectual faculties in their highest gear, as best he knew how. And indeed, he uncovered a very unsettling Truth. His worst fears were confirmed, his nightmare brought to life. He has seen the man behind the curtain; there's no turning back now. He is living a lie! He's been taken in by a big hoax! The vagaries of life have conspired to place him in a society with many ingrained and strongly held false beliefs, from where it's practically impossible to get out. Forgive me!

The Chazan again chants with his booming voice; the crowd cries out in thunderous response. But that boy no longer beseeches, cries, begs or demands. There is no longer anyone towards whom to direct those entreaties. Like the old, torn, and tattered security blanket of a young child, the time to discard the illusory comfort of the illusory God has long past. Forgive me!

In place of the old promises not to sin, there remains the amazed bemusement at the incredibly sycophantic and obsequious nature of the prescribed prayers. In place of the soothing, spiritual glow, a troublesome antagonism now brews within. In place of longing for the divine, there remains the dull ache of the realization that he remains trapped in this alien society. Yet, it is still a harbinger of things to come: of a month spent in subjugation and prayer to a being he doesn't believe in; a month of great financial and personal sacrifice to rituals that now seem useless to him; and a month of indoctrinating his children in a way of life he's lost faith in. Forgive me Father for I have sinned! Forgive me son for I have changed!