September 23, 2018

Atonement

When I first learned how to recite
The confessional prayers —
Head bowed slightly, tight hand
In a fist against my heart
With each whispered word —
I was relieved.

Here, I thought,
Is my chance to let go the burden
Of all I’ve done wrong,
All my failures finally set free.

I whomped my fist against my chest
Enthusiastically, the sound
Hollow, dead, flesh on flesh-cavity.

This fallible flesh, I thought,
This self caring only for myself.

Whomp for the sin of deceit,
For unkindness, for gossip
And impatience and anger.

Afterward, I felt cleansed
And slightly proud of my self-hatred.

Now that, I thought, is atonement,
And then added a few more to atone
For my pride and self-satisfaction.

After services, a white-haired man
Approached me gently. You know,
He murmured, The mystics say we tap
To open our hearts, as if knocking
On a door, so the person within
Will open — first a sliver, then a foot,
Then if we are patient and kind,
Maybe they will open it fully
And invite us in.

He said, We practice
Kindness in the most difficult
Arena: our imperfect selves.
I never saw that man again. Perhaps
I never saw him at all.

But I Think of him on Yom Kippur
When I dress in white
And bow my head
And knock gently on the gate
Of my heart, whispering,
Open the door, I forgive you,
Self, my sweet fallible love.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.