The Jewish community observed Yom Kippur this past week. It's always a little awkward to know what to say to Jewish friends at Yom Kippur. You really can't say, "Happy Yom Kippur!" It's not that kind of holiday: Happy fasting all day and atoning for your sins! Actually, the proper greeting is "Have an easy fast," or "I wish you an easy fast."
As our Director of Religious Education, Victoria Capon, said to me the other day, "How great to have a day set aside every year to examine your relationships." That is exactly the point of Yom Kippur. It is a day of fasting and atonement. I t is a time when God writes each soul in the Book of Life for the coming year - or not. Yom Kippur is serious stuff. It requires not just that we look at our faults but that we reconcile with those we have harmed. Or at least try to. This practice recognizes that human relationships are the center of religious life.
There's a traditional song from the Jewish tradition. It's in our hymnal but it's a weird tune and so we're not singing it as a hymn because every time we do, I feel like I owe you an apology afterwards for putting you through that. So let me be the cantor here for a moment: Who can say I am free? I have purified my great heart? There are none on earth. There are none on earth. A new heart I will give, not stone, but one that frees. A new heart I will give, and one that frees. Isn't that interesting: to frame the spiritual work Yom Kippur in terms of freedom. It's not the first thing I would associate with repentance. You don't think, "I atone, and this will make me free." Or, "I will go apologize, and then I will be free." Except that that's exactly how that works. There is nothing more freeing than telling the truth to ourselves and then others. In fact, there is no real freedom without that first freedom - being free from all the lies we tell ourselves in order to function, all the illusions we embrace because the truth seems too painful to accept.
Do you know what happens when I sit with somebody and have the privilege of seeing them come to terms with their own truth? They laugh. They laugh. Because they have been holding their breath for so long, been tight for so long, been defending themselves so long, and been carrying such a huge load of dung for so long, it is tremendous to let go of it. They laugh. And I laugh. It's wonderful to see it happen. Even if the world is crashing down around them, they laugh because they're getting free.
That's what we mean by detachment - it is that sense of freedom from illusion. Detachment doesn't mean to be above it all, to be cold and uncaring and uninvolved. "Detach with love" is another way of saying, "Get free from the mishegas. Tell the truth. Let it go, so you can live." Mishegas is a great Yiddish word that means just what it sounds like - craziness. The nuttiness of relationships. It is said that holding onto resentment and anger is like taking poison and expecting your enemy to die. I love the essentially Jewish idea that freedom is the most important condition of wholeness, of shalom.
So this sounds like a great thing: going to the person with whom you are in conflict, or with whom you have some residual tension or bad blood, and saying, "Let's make up. Let's put this old insult away, I'm so sorry for hurting you." The other person says, "I'm glad you came, I've missed you" or whatever - and you clear the air, and you move forward. You can breathe again. You no longer have that weight of knowing that there is someone out there who thinks you're a schmendrick. This is good. It's good when it works. Everyone likes a nice resolution to conflict.
What happens, though, when you do this work and you are not received graciously? What if you go to make amends with someone you have bad feelings or bad dealings with, and they slam the phone down on you (even though we really can't slam our phones down any more….)? Or ignore your e-mail? Or don't come to the door because they recognize your car? They pull the blinds and hide from you? How are you going to get free then? Are you allowed to detach with love with all of that unresolved tension? What are our responsibilities there?
Let me tell you a story about the twin brothers Jacob and Esau. They're in the Bible - you can look them up in Genesis. To make a long story short, Esau is technically the oldest son and has the birthright of the elder; you understand that means his father's estate and so on. But Jacob cons his father into giving him the blessing of the eldest son - it's a complicated situation but that's the gist of it. Esau wants to kill his brother. Literally kill him. So Jacob flees and goes on to have a moral coming of age over a period of years, and then he goes back to his homeland. He is understandably nervous about the situation with his brother, who is very rich by this time, as is Jacob. They're both wealthy and powerful but there is this very bad blood between them. Jacob sends an enormous good will offering ahead of him: herds of cows and sheep and goats and camels and donkeys. He's in a dangerous situation and he knows it. He says to Esau's servants, "Bring these to your master and tell him I'm hoping to find favor in his eyes." The servants take all the herds and they come back to Jacob and they say, "Yeah, he says he's coming out to see you. And he's bringing 400 men with him."
Let's stop here for a moment. Is this going to be a party or this going to be a war? We have no way of knowing. You may think you cannot relate to this moment - but I bet you can. Every one of us has reached this moment in important relationships, many times. This is that vulnerable moment when you're standing outside the principal's office and you don't know if you're going to get a talking to or get expelled or get some kind of award. You have no way to know. This is that moment when you stand at the door with a big bouquet of flowers and it's either going to slam in your face or you're going to get a big romantic night. This is that Thanksgiving dinner when you might see your ex with her new girlfriend. It might be okay, or you might wind up sobbing in the bathroom. You have no way of knowing.
These are these threshold moments we live with all the time, these breathtaking moments of fragility, where we are forced to recognize that we are not in control of things, we are not in control of other people, and that in fact, our lives rest in some significant way in the hands of others. If you're a feeling person at all, you live like this. We have tremendous power over each other! And we should! Because if nobody else has power in our lives, it means that no one else matters, and that is a very broken way to live.
The trick is - the spiritual task is - to accept that we are not in control and not let that panic us. Not to take the fact of our lack of control over others too seriously or too personally. The task is to have a sense of respect - not resentment and fear - about the fact that how we are regarded by others matters a lot. Of course that should matter: we are accountable to participate in as positive a way as possible in the human community! And yet, as I said to the children earlier, "What other people think of me is none of my business." We can't control what anyone else thinks of us, but there is also this fabulous freedom in realizing that even if they don't accept or approve of us, we can hold affection for them, anyway. Relationships can go in so many interesting ways when we're not obsessed with controlling others.
Let me point out to you another way in which we might connect with this moment in Esau and Jacob's story - the army. You may not think you've ever showed up to have an important conversation with someone and been greeted by an army of their supporters, but think again. Sure you have. Have you ever heard phrases like this: "Well, everyone in the family thinks that you're acting like a jerk about this. EVERYONE! The entire extended family! Cousins, second cousins, tiny grandchildren! They apparently took a poll and the results are in: 100% of the family thinks you're a jerk!" Nonsense. More likely, two or three people agree that you're being a jerk, several others are agreeing with them because they're afraid of being next on the disapproval list, and the rest of the family doesn't know or care anything about this little drama. "The whole school is talking about what you did last weekend with that guy!" This is how children control each other, and how teenagers enforce their own social order. One of the most loving things you can do with your youngster is to help them understand that the Invisible Army invoked by one or two controlling peers has no basis in reality.
If you have ever been in marital counseling or participated in a 12-step group, you will have heard the expression, "Use ‘I' statements." This is because all of us have a tendency, when we feel like we'd like more power in a relationship or a conversation, to bring our armies with us, or to claim that we have in order to intimidate someone else. Very few constructive conversations can happen when we come to the table with armies lined up behind us. I understand why Esau brought his. Most of the time, though, the army belongs out on the battlefield, not in the relationship.
So there is Jacob, and I want us to stand in his shoes - or sandals – for a minute. What is he going to do? What is he obligated to do? If he is free in his heart does that mean that he should just stand there with his breast bared and wait for his brother to stick a sword through his heart? He is the guilty party, after all. The ball is entirely in Esau's court, and he may or may not have been nursing this grudge all these years. So Jacob is there, waiting. You have been there yourself. Waiting. Fearing, hoping. Perhaps defensive, perhaps full of self-recrimination, perhaps full of guilt, perhaps eager to reconcile, perhaps vacillating between all of these emotions. Of course none of us should greet that vulnerable moment with breasts bared for a sword. Relationships require openness and courage, not masochism - not martyrdom. If we martyr ourselves for the sake of one relationship, we make ourselves unavailable for others.
But get this: It is here in this moment before Jacob knows the outcome - before he knows how Esau will react to him - during which he has the opportunity to be radically free. No matter what happens, Jacob knows that he will have made his best effort. He can go away from whatever Esau says or however Esau reacts knowing that he cannot control him, wishing him well, and letting him go. What matters is that Jacob knows where he stands; on what emotional and spiritual ground as well as what literal ground. What matters is that he showed up, he sent the gifts ahead, he is ready to love, he is ready to be in right relation, he is ready to take whatever reaction is coming his way with pretty good grace. If he has detached with love, he can survive whatever this moment will bring.
Jacob spent a sleepless night waiting for his brother and his brother's army to greet him at dawn. He looked up and saw Esau coming with his four hundred men. So he lined up his own household, wives and servants and children - and he went on ahead of his retinue and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. But Esau ran to greet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. (Genesis 33:1-5) They might just as easily have laughed. They are free men. Released from the bonds of old anger and enmity. Free to love, free to breathe deeply. But please understand. Before these brothers met out on that open plain, they had to each individually reach common ground in their minds and hearts. That's the ground we all have to travel. Those last few yards across the field? They're nothing. You can handle those, no sweat. But there's a lot of ground to travel before that point. That's the much harder journey.