Thursday, March 15, 2012

From Shame to Grace

In Israel for many months we lived with the trial and eventual conviction of the former president, Moshe Katzav, for rape and other crimes. It was painful to watch the drama unfold as Katzav insisted on his innocense even as the evidence seemed to mount against him. And still now several months since he began his prison sentence he continues to make headlines as he refuses to accept his status as a prisoner and comply with prison rules. His plight engenders anger in some, pity and/or compassion in others. But for all the story is a sad one. Few have been so high only to fall so low.

One question remains. Is the story also tragic? By tragic I mean,is Moshe Katzav's life and story now beyond the possibility of redemption? Surely the former president has been disgraced. The one time leader of the Land is now a convicted felon and of the most perverse crimes. He has gone from "bait hanasi" to "bait hakeleh". His failure is both personal and professional and it is of gigantic proportion.
Is there any hope for this man? Is there any possibility the quality of his life and person could yet be saved?

This is Israel we are talking about. Israel is not a forgiving country. Politicians here cannot do as they sometimes do elsewhere, say they made a mistake, apologize and gain forgiveness. Here if you have made a mistake, especially if you live in the public eye, you are branded. Politicians don't acknowledge wrong here and take their chances. They deny! Denial to them is the only option. Olmert denies, Katzav denies,
prominent rabbis deny. It's hard to think of anyone accused of wrongdoing who admitted wrong. Denial is to them the only recourse. To admit is to face the end, not only in politics but in social living.

So is that it? Katzav is doomed? There is no hope for healing in his life?

Let's see what the Torah has to tell us. This Shabbat we read in the Torah the portions of Vayakehl-Pekudai. With the readings we close out the second book of the Torah,the Book of Sh'mot. The readings complete the story of the building of the Mishkan, the House of G-d built by the Israelites in the wilderness. The story of our ancestors erecting a place for the Divine in their midst can be experienced from many different angles. Look at this angle with me.

It is truly amazing that this People who not too long before the Mishkan was ordered committed a most humiliating sin, the worship of the Golden Calf, now several months later, are about to dedicate this edifece of supreme holiness, a tabernacle to G-d in their midst. How can it be? How can this People go from being so hopeless that G-d told Moshe "let Me destroy them and make a new nation from you" to being worthy enough to host G-d in an unprecedented intimacy. The disgrace of Israel, the nation, is no less than the personal disgrace of Katzav. One would wonder, how could this People ever find redemption? How could their sense of self be redeemed after so horrific and compromising a betrayal.

I believe that if one is alive there is always a possibility of redemption. No matter how awful one's personal disgrace it is not hopeless...even in Israel.
But the road towards that salvation of self is not an easy one. It demands a significant price. Let me explain.

In the Psalms, in a chapter we recite on festive occasions during the Hallel, King David proclaims in joy, "The stone the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone of the structure." According to the tradition David was referring to himself here. He was a person without the pedigree to be king. He was scorned and rejected as unworthy to his role. Yet ultimately he rose to prominance. And how?
The answer is that one who is compromised indeed has no hope so long as s/he remains a stone, isolated and unique. If one has been disgraced one cannot assume the title and prestige of the "rock", as the prince and special one and hope to find a place.
Once we have been humiliated we can indeed never return to where we were. We can no longer be the star of the show. The star is lost to us and it is lost forever.

But that does not mean we have no way to be restored. We can indeed be rehabilitated and yet have a meaningful place in the social fabric. But our place will no longer be as the hero or savior, leader or star. Now our place will be as part of the community, a piece within the wall, indeed a cornerstone, a connecting link, serving others. We can have a wonderful place in society even after our disgrace, but we no longer can stand alone. We need to accept that we are generals no more. We too are now infantry and together we can have the healing that alone was not possible for us.

That is the story Torah teaches us of the Israelites. After the worship of the Golden Calf the Torah tells us that they had to remove the "crowns" that were on their heads. They were no longer the princes and princesses they had been. The first-born had to surrender their status as priests to the Levites, who had not sinned. Israel could redeem itself but only if we accepted our ordinariness and gained our esteem by being part of a whole. Yes, we were able to build a Mishkan, but how? We did it through annonymous donations, and donations of the half-shekels where the rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, the whole community gave the same amount and as one.

Their is no personal disgrace that is beyond our abilty to recover from. But recovery has a price. If you want it you need to get past the obstinacy of trying to hold on to what you had and instead remake yourself in a different image, an image far more modest, one in which you are a part of the group rather than as it's stand-alone leader. Katzav need not stonewall. He need not protest his innocence or else die. He can admit guilt and yet have a life. But it will not be the same life. He will need to embrace a new identity and a more modest sense of self. And when/if he can he will find their is both a place and a need for part of the wall that is Israel the nation.

The great truth King David told us in Psalms is that if we in fact remake ourselves from the singular stone to the piece of the wall to our amazement we will not only find acceptance, we will find joy, true and unexpected joy. That which we dread will in fact make us happy in a way we could never have imagined. It was of this metamorphosis that David wrote in the following verse "This is the day Hashem has made let us be glad and rejoice in it".

I know of what I write. I have made this journey. I know it to be true. No one's life is beyond redemption, no matter how great their lapse. What is necessary is to surrender the crown and set oneself within the community as a whole. It is in the context of community that one then may make his/her contributions in accord with his/her gifts. And the miracle is the resultant sense of belonging and a self that knows again a place of rest and acceptance.

May our day soon come when we can say "This is the day Hashem has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it." It is in our hands!

Shabbat Shalom

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