Somewhere between the tablet and the Tablet, there was a primitive invention known as the Etch A Sketch. You could take your mistakes, give them a hearty shake, and they were gone. A clean slate; you could start over. Unfortunately, all the brilliant, artistic work that you had created was also gone.
Teshuvah involves a certain amount of being shaken up. I do not imagine that I can keep all the neat lines of my life in place and just reset the one wrong turn. But, I do get to create another sketch of my life, another map of where I want to go.
We all understand that there is a limit to how much shaking a person can take. If you smash the Etch A Sketch on the ground, you won’t be able to make anything with it. Oh, but most of us are much more likely to think, “I don’t have to shake it that hard. Just a little nudge. Maybe I can just move that one line of my life…”
Real change requires a stronger push. Which leads me to wonder: just what are we asking God to do when we pray for forgiveness? What does it mean to say “S’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu?”
One thing I am pretty certain of is that it does not mean three different things, as if God subjects us to three different processes. We relate to the expression “s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu” as a kind of collective statement of our longing. It is poetic, not descriptive of God’s actions. It is three shakes, because one will not do.
In fact, I can’t accept that God actually “does” anything, in a transitive sense, to us. Just what do we imagine is happening in this selichah-mechilah-kaparah process? That God resets something? That we hand over the Etch A Sketch of our lives to God on an annual basis and plead “Please be gentle when you shake us?”
The translation “forgive us, pardon us, help us atone” seems to be an attempt to modify the traditional theology, but only partly. Where Gates of Repentance said “grant us atonement,” a parallel to God forgiving us and pardoning us, the draft Machzor asks God to “help us atone,” implying that the real action is being done by us. At least, the action in the third verb, because the first two verbs still frame the action as taking place on God’s side.
I have no objection to the translation; just an observation about the direction toward which the language points us.
When the rabbis wrote “kaper lanu,” they must have been thinking about the atoning power of sacrifice, and asking God to apply that same grace to us, even though the sacrificial altar is gone.
That’s just not how I think of God. I embrace the poetry of “s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu,” but not because it describes an action that God undertakes vis a vis us.
I long for cosmic forgiveness. What’s more, I believe it is possible. Not an insincere forgetfulness of the past, but an honest return to the position of possibility. If anything, teshuvah ought to mean that we do not forget what we have done. Rather, we have learned from it, and, as a consequence, no longer attach emotional weight to our past errors. I remember where I drew that line, and I won’t make that same mistake again.
Longing for cosmic forgiveness is not the same as a plea to God to remake us. I would like to say that this is somehow rational, but I know that it is not. Rather, it is a question of the starting point of prayer. Laying words upon words is itself a kind of sketch; not a request for God to shake it all clean, but the careful beginning of a new drawing of our lives.
I am willing to live with the ambiguity of outward-directed prayer for what I know must ultimately be an inward process. But forgiveness seems to me to be among the most transcendent, precious and rare experiences we can know. If I am fortunate enough to acquire a clean slate, I experience that as a gift. It is the way that we experience transformative moments in our lives that imparts meaning to our prayers. Prayer is not an assertion about reality, but a way of giving expression to our deepest hopes. God may not actually forgive, but I know what cosmic forgiveness feels like.
Rabbi Laurence Elis Milder, Ph.D., is the Reform rabbi of the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, NC.
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