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Yom Kippur, 2022

The story is told of Rabbi Zusya that once on the Eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement he heard the Cantor in the House of Prayer chanting, “And it is forgiven,” in such strange and beautiful tones that he called to God: “Lord of the world! Had Israel not sinned, how could such a song have been intoned before you?”

-- Slightly adapted from, “The Song,” Tales of the Hasidim

Meshullam Zusya of Hanipol, who died in 1800 was a disciple of The Great Maggid, Dov Baer of Mizritch. The Maggid was a direct disciple of the founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezar, the Baal Shem Tov. Rabbi Zusya has given us a koan for Yom Kippur. Of course, neither the Rabbi nor Martin Buber who collected these tales and retold them for modern readers likely thought of this tale as a koan.

Bernie opened my eye to atonement. “Being at one with,” he said, “is to atone.” I had to look it up in the dictionary. I had always assumed that the root was “tone”. That “atoning” was related to “intoning”.

To be at one with. So what is that I atone for? What am I to be at one with?

What are sins?

Rabbi Zusya says for my sins. So, what are sins? I brought my meager American, Judeo-Christian understanding of sin with me to my Zen practice. “To sin,” I thought, “was to violate the Commandments, to break the law.” That’s what it looked like we were doing as Peacemakers on the monthly Day of Reflection, looking at the Precepts as if they were commandments. I did the monthly practice for a while, and then stopped. Somehow this practice, which felt like striving to be virtuous, was leaving me cold. It felt too self-absorbed, too self-castigating.

Today, I see “sin” differently — not as violating a law or precept, but as causing suffering.

What am I to atone for? The suffering I have caused.

So how do I atone? It took me a while to realize that another confusion had crept in. I had come to confound atonement with the Alcoholics Anonymous Step 8, Making Amends. To atone, I was thinking, was to make amends.

How to do that? To apologize to the people to whom I had caused suffering. As I reflected, I found myself smiling and ultimately laughing at myself. I realized how often my apologies had been a move in a game: I apologize to you and you forgive me and now you can’t be angry at me anymore and I can feel safe and loved. A childhood game I was playing with my parents, long after they were gone, playing with anyone who would play with me.

I still apologize a lot, but differently. Now I am acknowledging that I caused you harm (or at least failed to help). I am not looking for forgiveness —I just want you to know that I know what I did. I am sorry that I caused you suffering. No excuses.

Atonement, amends.

But then I came back to Bernie’s words. Atonement is not to make amends. Atonement is to be at one with. It is all me. The good that I have done in the world. And the suffering that I have caused. To recognize that sometimes in the very same act, I have done good and caused harm.

Was it even possible to have done the good without doing harm?

Was it possible for me to have done better, at that moment in my life? In Bernie’s analogy, can you cure the cancer without killing cancer cells? Or this summer, walking around Staten Island, can we manage the Lantern Fly invasion, without killing Lantern Flies?

It is all me, the good and the harm that I have done. To atone, to be at one, is to embrace it all. Over and over again, my Dharma Grandpa, Maezumi Roshi, taught, “Appreciate your life.” Your whole life. Not just the pretty things. I am all of it. How do you appreciate the harm that you have done?

In our schools, I began by apologizing to the parents of the youngsters who we couldn’t help. Sometimes we were actually expelling students but more often we were pressing parents to take their children to more restrictive settings where they might be able to get the help we couldn’t provide. Even if we had managed to avoid doing harm, we hadn’t been much help. “This isn’t your fault,” I would tell parents, “and it’s not your kid’s fault. We just don’t have skill to give your child the help he needs and deserves. I’m sorry. I hope that we keep learning, though, so that next time a student comes to our schools with the challenges which your child presented, we will have learned enough to be helpful.”

I found myself saying something similar to teachers who after a year or two were not being invited back for the next school year. At first, I had tried merely to soften the blow. “I am sorry, but we need to move in a different direction. Maybe it’s just a bad fit. Maybe a different school will fit you better.” Now I am more likely to say, “This is on me. I thought I was going to be able to give you the tools you needed to become the teacher that you wanted to be and I’ve let you down.”

These don’t sound like such hard things to say, but usually when we get to the point of expelling a student or laying off a teacher, there is a lot of anger and frustration. Rather than facing our own failure, we all really want to say, “It’s all your fault. You brought this on yourself. If you had listened to me, you would have succeeded.”

Perhaps it is hardest to acknowledge the suffering I’ve caused Dee and Morri, the two most important people in my life, to keep seeing the consequences of stupid things that I’ve done out of anger or ignorance. And to face over and over again that I am still doing stupid things, saying stupid things.

At one with.

To be at one with my sins, the suffering I have caused, to be at one with it all, to appreciate my life is over and over again to embrace all of it, not to justify it, not to excuse it, and most particularly not to use this appreciation, this self-acceptance as an excuse for doing it again or as a justification, “That’s just who I am.” It is who I was. Every moment is fresh. Who I am is being created over and over again moment by moment. Not knowing what I could have done differently in the past, or five minutes ago, does not mean I cannot find a new way, a less harming way now.

Rabbi Zusya calls to God, “Lord of the world! Had Israel not sinned, how could such a song have been intoned before you?”

There is such joy in atonement.

Seeing the Venus rising at dawn, the Buddha exclaims, “Wonderful! Wonderful! No one in the world like me.”

For years, I thought he was speaking only for himself, because he was the Buddha.

He is speaking for all of us, speaking for me. “Wonderful! Wonderful! No one in the world like me.” Me. With all my successes and failures. And not just me. You too. Every one of us. The joy of atonement. Appreciating the whole thing.

“Lord of the world! Had Israel not sinned, how could such a song have been intoned before you?”

There is a wonder here which could not have been appreciated but for the imperfections.

I caught a glimpse of this years ago, long before I experienced this myself, working with alcoholics in recovery. I could see that they had something that I didn’t have — a glow, an authenticity. It was something beyond stopping drinking. It was, I would say now, about embracing your life as recovering. I thought, not entirely seriously, that maybe I should become an alcoholic in order to experience recovery. But I was seeing something.

Our broken plates.

I got a firsthand taste during the first year of the Arts of Recovery, the flagship program of The Verrazano Foundation (the not-for-profit we had created following my first retirement.) The Foundation’s mission was to level the playing field for people living with mental illnesses. It was my first full-fledged attempt to follow Bernie’s injunction to “bring to the societal table those who have been excluded.” In the Arts of Recovery, artists living with mental illnesses collaborated with professional artists to create an exhibit at a local gallery. Two Japanese artists-in-residence that year at Snug Harbor Cultural Center led the work. One day, the recovering artists decorated a dinner plate to memorialize an important moment in their lives. We learned – I participated in this workshop — that in Japan the most valuable teaware has been broken and repaired. We learned the art of ceramic repair using a gold-infused glue. We participated in a formal tea ceremony. And then we broke our plates and repaired them.

“Lord of the world! Had Israel not sinned, how could such a song have been intoned before you?”

Roshi Jishu taught over and over again, “Only the wounded healer can heal.” She was encouraging us, again and again, to feel our pain and our shame and our embarrassment — to be at one with our entire lives — to embrace it all, not just the pretty parts, to experience the joy of atonement, to appreciate our lives. We are all living with our broken plates.

It is hard to believe that the broken plates which have been repaired with lo­­­­­ve and care are more valuable than those which had never been broken.

What a song!

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