Tuesday, June 25, 2013
IN SEARCH OF THE HIDDEN SIN: or the search for the leaven and repentance
This time of year, between May and July, my coydog sheds, not just a tuft here or there wafting across the floor like some tribble wannabe, but another complete dog. What never ceases to amaze me is how much hair I continue to find knitted around the feet of the furniture like stockings, sticking to my leather sofa like a mohair mat, and generally from one end of the house to the other, as though she was turning the entire house into a fluffy dog den. Those fine, downy, electrified fibers humble me with their sheer number and ability to find their way into everything. Cleaning them up is not just a daunting task, but nearly impossible. However, I keep at it in the hope that I will be triumphant and cleanliness will rule the day.
What does this have to do with sin and repentance? Some of you may already be circling where I'm headed, but others will be scratching their head and wondering what the connection is between dog hairs and repentance. Think of the dog hairs as sin, not big giant sins like murder, but tiny infractions in our lives that we either don't notice or don't wish to notice. Maybe we've said things that are unkind and feel we are justified, or we cut someone off on the road to and from work, or we didn't speak up for someone when they were insulted by another, nor apologize when an apology was due. If there were times when we did not tell the whole truth, otherwise known as quibbling, because we were afraid, and a litany of other infractions too numerous to list. When these things happen you must ask yourself if you have become a servant to your small sins, as I've become a servant to my dog, that they rule your life instead of God. These small things may seem incidental in God's grand scheme, but they harm all of us individually and collectively.
Searching for Leaven
The hairs reminded me of a ritual we have called the bedikat hametz, or the search for the leaven, performed by Jews on the night before Passover. Oddly enough, the law in the scripture declares: “Seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses,” Ex 12:19 and, “There shall not be seen with you any leaven in your borders for seven days.” Dt 16: 4. Mind you, this is the final day of the seven days before Passover. So why is there a ritual of searching the night before? This represents that searching for leaven to remain faithful doesn't end, that we will search the hidden places within us, our homes, and our families to root out the hidden sin, that the search is ongoing like prayer, a continual repentance, that you cannot rest in thinking we've done our job. The opposite of that continual repentance is saying a prayer to believe in Jesus and assuring ourselves that is it, that you now believe and you're done, no matter what occurs after. The truth is that you're never done until the moment you reach heaven, or Hell, Gehinnon in Hebrew. This why the search is conducted on the night before.
There are two prohibitions in the scripture: Leaven is not to be seen (bal yeraeh), and leaven is not to be found (bal yimatze) on your premises during the Passover holiday. This is taken very seriously to the point the owner of the house renounces the ownership of any leaven still existing in his house without his knowledge. This declaration is known as bittul be-lev, a renunciation within his heart. Just as I cannot know where every tiny hair has flown off to within my small abode, neither does the Jew know where a molecule of yeast is hiding. The owner then takes it upon himself to fulfill these prerequisites by a physical search and a verbal renunciation. Note that this is not an either/or proposition, but both a physical and verbal act. You cannot have one without the other, for one fulfills the intent of the other.
In the Roman Catholic Church this ceremony is called the sacrament of reconciliation, where we physically make the trip to Church (unless there is a physical hardship for the penitent to make the trip then the priest will come to them) and search our souls, with the help of our priest to recognize our sin, then verbally renounce it. The priest forgives us as the duly sanctified representative of the Church called by God to impart and reassure us of God's mercy and forgiveness. The priest confers a blessing on us from the community and God in recognition of our search and subsequent declaration that we will sin no more. This is similar to the Rabbi who forms his hands into the double shin (remember Spock from Star Trek, “Live long and prosper,” only he did it with one hand). The priest asks us to pray or perform an act of penance in the view of the entire church or community. This is a sign that we are a witness to the world of our love of God and sincere desire to serve God with all of heart, soul, mind, and strength. (Dt 30: 6; Mk 12:30)
The other prescription for the Jewish ritual is that it must be carried out by candlelight. Not by the sun, nor by the moon, but by candlelight because it can shed light in places where the other two cannot. (Candles are ritually used in both Judaism and Catholicism and their importance and meaning will be explained in another post.) Because the Jew begins his day in darkness and ends in light, his days are guided by the cycles of the moon and not the sun. Therefore, the ritual is carried out in the dark, the night before. Allegorically speaking, the beginning of our journey begins in darkness with a fervent search to expose the darkness in our lives in order to come into the light. In other words, the walk toward God can only begin with a repentant heart and a public verbal confession, and not done in secret.
The mistress of the house places ten pieces of bread in different places around the house (noting where they all are to be found) for the searchers to discover. Why place bread with yeast in a house cleaned of yeast six days before? This is done so when the blessing for the search for hametz is recited, the participants will not take the Lord's name in vain. This certainly doesn't mean that we must sin in order to make a valid confession. The finding of the pieces are a physical representation of what we must do both spiritually and physically.
We often know what sins we have committed, where they occurred, and with whom, like the ten pieces of bread. Our position in the community is dependent upon our making a good confession, and making a sincere effort to participate in the community. This Jewish ceremony of searching for the leaven shows the joy of our transformation and adoption by God from a former outcast to a member of a family. The end game of the finding of the ten pieces is the culmination of that process of transformation, and the renouncing of the world of temptation and sin seals the covenant.
Ten Pieces of Leavened Bread
Why is ten important and what does it mean? The number ten comes from the tenth letter of the alphabet: The yud or yod (either is acceptable). This letter is barely bigger than a dot, but it is the first letter of the ineffable name of God. The yud was the letter used by God to create the World to Come. When we pray or read the scripture, the first thing that must come to mind is that future moment, where we will meet God face to face in the World to Come. Everything we do leads up to that moment, therefore, the yud further symbolizes humility and the metaphysical, meaning that a transfiguration of our soul takes place. The deeper meaning is that before creation the letter yud was crystallized by God into its essence, transcending time, space, and matter, and that is the reason why it is so small. The implication is that standing before the powerful essence of the yud, the name of God, that first letter should humble us, and through that humility comes our transformation both physically and spiritually; a metaphysical process. Its number is ten, which means it encompasses all the letters before it and the yud becomes the base, the number ten, for the following series of letters and their numerical equivalents: The next letter, kaf which is the numerical equivalent of twenty, then lamed is thirty, etc. As you can see, each letter after yud is a multiple of ten. Yud is the delicate hinge between all the letters of creation.
Knowing what the letter yud is and its equivalent number we can finally answer the why. The number ten is critical to the ceremony. The ten pieces of leavened bread are based on the ten generations from Adam to Noah to the complete breakdown of morality. God waited ten more generations until Abraham was born. With ten utterances God created the universe; there are ten commandments; ten miracles (plagues) in Egypt; ten more miracles at the Sea of Reeds; ten times the Israelites tested God in the wilderness; and ten miracles were seen in the Temple (Avos ch. 5). Ten is inextricably linked to every succeeding generation, and the act of finding these ten pieces of leavened bread helps us reconnect to every event that brought us thus far, that ten times we can repent of those generations lost to sin, and ten times we can see the hand of God in raising the Hebrew nation out of the morass of sin.
The bread is set aside to be burned ceremonially the next morning in the fifth hour before Passover. The daylight hours are subdivided by twelve even if there are only nine hours of daylight. Each division is counted as an hour (not always sixty minutes). Naturally in the summer there will be more daylight than in the winter where the daylight hours become shorter. Next comes the burning called biur hametz and everyone stands around as the ten pieces of leavened bread are burned. This is a joyous time of repentance and renouncing of all sin that we may or may not know of lurking within ourselves. You can also see the correlation to Lent for us Catholics. Lent is a time of reflection over how we've lived our lives, forty days (four times ten) in the search for the leaven within us. Lent is a time for fasting, praying, and repenting, and suffering with Christ in the stations of the cross, but it is a joyous time of anticipation too. Like a child who excitedly waits for Christmas day to arrive and the opening of their gifts, we look forward to our gift, the supreme gift of salvation. The glory of Jesus' sacrifice renews our fervent love for Him and culminates in the triumph of His resurrection. We spread the joy of the resurrection through to the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and finally on the day of Jesus' Baptism we prepare for the year, just as Passover prepares the Jew for his gift of the Holy Spirit in Shauvot and their coming year.
The Hidden Sin
Using the dog hair analogy we can see that sin can easily hide, it can masquerade as a justified good, or as a triviality that will do no immediate harm. I often wonder how many dog hairs I've swallowed over the years, like weevils hiding in my flour. These things we can only guess at and shrug our shoulders knowing that they really will do us no physical harm, of course, there might be some protein value in a weevil, but, in the long run, we aren't really harmed by these things. However, small sins can harm. In fact, they can be deadly both physically and spiritually.
Think about viewing pornography, which is becoming harder and harder to avoid if you just see some commercials on television while waiting for the evening news. Recently, I had the unfortunate viewing of a commercial when a man and a woman, although clothed, were doing everything that would lead up to having sex. This was a commercial for shaving hair from our legs and I had to avert my eyes. I haven't even mentioned perfume ads, or sanitary napkin ads, or underwear ads like Victoria Secret, that all are meant to arouse us sexually, and are even found in magazines and on internet ads. The continual bombardment of sexual scenes harms our marriages, or, if unmarried, can make us develop unrealistic expectations of our potential mate and cause us to alter our view of the sacredness of the marriage bed. Instead one pursues the thrill of sex over the sacred obligation that children are to be sought, as well as, the love of our husband or wife, and not multiple partners.
Joan of Arc admonished the soldiers of France to behave morally by not swearing, or having sex with prostitutes, and to make a good confession before they went into battle. She knew it was crucial in order for God to be on their side. Many saints have asked the people of their community to root out their sin and confess before God in order for God to favor them with the miracle they all sought. Think of Jonah and the people of Ninevah. Once they repented because they learned the value of what Jonah had to say, the sinning stopped, and goodness became abundant. Even Jonah learned a lesson that you can't fear following God and doing what He ask of you, the consequences of not following Him could be deadly. Our fears can also become a looming sin as they collect like dog hair socks.
There was a time when people thoughtfully considered everything they did or said. The cultural restraints on people were legion, but they kept us from being rude, obnoxious, or inappropriately sexually enticing through word, act, or dress. Reputations were taken very seriously. Today, nearly all social constraints in our culture have disappeared or been trampled over like a pack of wild hogs. Rudeness abounds, inappropriate sexual enticements are everywhere, and those who broke all the rules are celebrated and crowned with laurel wreaths as though they had actually accomplished something wonderful. Even those who represent us in government have lied and seem to get away with it. Reputation appears to be irrelevant. But is it? Lately, there has been a push to tell young people, even in grade school, that you must be careful what you say on the social media sites because that could be used against you when you try to apply for entrance into college or a job. It shows what kind of character the child has to the world, to their chosen college, to the potential employer. At least, some are taking this problem seriously. Virtue is something that should be sought at a very early age. With practice it can become a way of life, keeping us from harm.
Iago, a character from Shakespeare's play Othello declared, “Virtue! a fig!” in Act I Scene iii, and he succeeded in destroying those closest to him along with his intended victim, as well as, himself. In the end, he found virtue is not a fig, and without it only death remains. Although that is an extreme example, Shakespeare is excellent reading for moral tales. His stories are rife with reputations lost, found, and some destroyed, and he emphasizes that even the virtuous can be killed when those who lack any begin their determined march, like the Iagoes of the world. The media also falls prey to the allure of the salacious instead of exposing evil and behaving virtuously. They would rather report on some trial about people we don't know and never will, or the affair of General Petraeus rather than search for the answers to what happened in Benghazi. This diminishes the lives lost there, and diminishes their profession. They are reduced to pornographers of the worst kind, and their reporting is bereft of any moral value. The blood of those victims is on their hands.
It can be difficult to find that small sin in a sea of blatant inappropriate behavior here and abroad, and it doesn't looks as though it's getting any better. A number years ago, someone started the What Would Jesus Do campaign. I found it a useful approach to ferreting out the yeast fermenting in us by our actions. It did help some to consider what they did through the eyes of the divine before plummeting off a cliff or taking the wrong road. And I do believe it did help some to look at the cinemascope of their lives from God's viewpoint. Today, instead of asking What Would Jesus Do, a better question would be Will This Crucify Jesus Again? We use the crucifix in our churches for a purpose. It helps us to be continually aware of what our slightest infraction caused; the excruciating death of Our Lord Jesus.
There are consequences to every word, action, or thing left undone. The crimes of omission are many times as serious as the crimes of commission. If we avoid doing the right thing and choose to do nothing, that is an action. It is a crime of omission and it is serious. We cannot wallow in fear and believe we are skirting the consequences of our inaction. When we see bullying we should say something. When we know something is wrong and don't stand up for what's right the scripture says the blood is on our hands. We become responsible for the spiritual and physical death of those around us, like the unborn, and the painful dismemberment of partial birth abortions, of the women who die from taking oral and patch contraceptives, or are butchered by abortionists, of those who died in Benghazi, of the Christians brutalized and murdered in Islamic countries, and I could go on. Cain was wrong. We are our brother's keeper. Helping another elevates us as a sign to the world that God is real, that virtuous acts are what make us human, and raise us from the animal. This is why our feasts, our ceremonies have communal elements. The searching for the leaven, although deeply personal, is also a communal act. Those hidden sins must be found and burned until even we notice our transfiguration.
Upon rising in the morning offer up your days actions and inactions to God, ask Him to remind you that Christ was crucified for everything, no matter how small. And keep searching for those tiny sins that fly everywhere, and, when we least expect it, they come back to haunt us. My first prayer of the morning is by Charles de Foucauld:
“Father, I abandon myself into Your hands; do with me what You will. Whatever You may do, I thank You: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only Your will be done in me, and in all Your creatures—I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into Your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to You with all the love of my heart, for I love You, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for You are my Father.”
~ Let this be your prayer too.