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What I Learned From The Jews


Lent is a season of sacrifice. You give something up. Something you really enjoy. Something you don’t want to live without.

We Christians note the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, this period we call Lent, as a time to prepare for a commemoration of the event that defines our faith: the resurrection. As Christ suffered and prayed, so, in some small way, in some representative way, must we. So we give something up for those few weeks and don’t make a big deal about it.

But it is a big deal.

Inevitably, as with most people with New Year’s resolutions, we don’t stick to it. Forty days are a long time, and few of us make it all the way through without some transgression into the pleasure we meant to set aside.

Most years, sometime during the season of Lent, Jewish people observe Passover. I knew a little bit about it, but I learned a lot more at a friend’s son’s Bar Mitzva last week. The weekend of this Bar Mitzva included the Sabbath of the red heifer. I listened transfixed as the Rabbi spoke about it.

This Sabbath was a call to prepare for Passover by removing all the leavened bread from the house. Every crumb. The Rabbi spoke of cleaning out cabinets and vacuuming far under couches to make sure every speck of leavening was gone. The house was to be completely purged of the bread eaten, and scattered about, the rest of the year. The job was daunting, but crucial to the observance of a tradition that predated most of the recorded history of the west.

Of course, the people sweeping out the house would miss a crumb.

The Rabbi said that this violation of law, this tiny piece of leavening left behind, this big mistake, should be seen as a person’s offering. This little crumb, instead of being viewed as a failing, should be offered up to God as thanks, and contrition, and faith. This mistake was holy.

This was one of the most profound messages I ever heard in a place of worship. The idea that a transgression of morality could honestly be viewed as a sacrifice to the Lord, a confession, a declaration of our humanness, was transformative. It completely made me reconsider my Lenten weakness. It completely made me reconsider the mistakes I’ve made as a result of my struggle with mental illness.

Some of the things I’ve done while manic seemed beyond forgiveness. I’ve lived with the consequences of broken relationships, squandered opportunities, substance abuse, suicide attempts and pointlessness for years. But there was a point. I’ve always maintained that we need to take responsibility for all our actions. Even the ones we committed while irrational or psychotic. We need to make amends. But the guilt of facing up to these failings and the pain they caused can be so daunting that we convince ourselves that they are better forgotten, left behind, swept away.

But these failings can be offered up as a presentation of our faith. Our faith in both God and ourselves. During the Sabbath of the red heifer the Jews would make a burnt offering of a cow, a red one, and anoint themselves with a mixture of oil and the cow’s ashes. It’s not unlike the Christian observance on Ash Wednesday. This symbol of pleading for connection to God, despite our disappointments with ourselves, can both absolve us of our guilt and make us reconsider how our mistakes formed us just as much as our goals and accomplishments.

I’ve screwed up a lot. And I wouldn’t be the person I am today, a person who finally lives well with the impact of my bipolar disorder, without the cumulative effects of these screw ups. The little ones and the big ones.

If every mistake can be an offering, despite our efforts to be perfect, we can free ourselves of the weight of a detrimental past and move into a promising future. As long as we honestly try to live or best lives. As long as we keep uncovering the crumbs.

Of course no one burns cows anymore. And few people can find it within themselves to see mistakes as holy acts if only we continue to try to live without them, but accept them when they occur, and offer them up as proof that we are human, and we are flawed, but we are giving it our best.


George Hofmann is the author of Practicing Mental Illness: Meditation, Movement and Meaningful Work to Manage Challenging Moods. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.

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