Prison, Punishment, Penitence‏
Prison. The very mention of the word brings to mind disturbing images of lockups, inmate fighting and prisoner rioting. Notorious Alcatraz, San Quentin or Sing Sing may come to mind. In a lighthearted departure we may invision actor Paul Newman as prisoner "Cool Hand" Luke Jackson betting he can eat fifty eggs in an hour. For most of us, prison is someplace we see on t.v. or in the movies. But for those who have been there, those who have had family and friends incarcerated, the images, and the experiences, are very real. Most often we'd like to believe that prison confinement is justice duly served. Other times we are painfully aware that sentences served are miscarriages of justice. I think of the solitary confinement Jonathan Pollard endured, and how he continues to languish in some hellhole, now over 26 years, because our government went back on its word for leniency in a plea agreement for his co-operation. I think of Gilad Shalit in the hands of Hamas, who would take his life in a heartbeat if he wasn't the pawn to be played in a possible future prisoner exchange.
In a sense, we are all prisoners. We all commit crimes. We all create inescapable environments, knowingly and unknowingly, placing ourselves, and those around us, in an emotional prison of worry; often times placing ourselves in danger. We get entangled in circumstances beyond our control, confining our bodies and our minds by doing so. Positive energy ceases to flow, and we find ourselves on edge. Sometimes we commit crimes which seem relatively harmless to us. Consider, for example, the simple act of driving. Most of us take this daily routine for granted. We are aware, but usually don't give cognizant thought, that we are in control of, and responsible for a multi-ton machine with tremendous power. We do take advantage of that power, though. Many of us exceed the speed limit when driving. We figure we'll take our chances, and hope we aren't pulled over and ticketed by a policeman or state trooper. We clearly see the sign posted, check our speedometer, and then cruise beyond the limit within a range that we feel should be acceptable not to be stopped, though we check our mirrors more than we would otherwise, just to be sure. If you don't speed, good for you; you'll live longer and more stress-free. If you do speed, you're no doubt aware of the risks you are taking, and hopefully are prepared to pay the possible consequences.
Emotionally taxing as well, can be the thought of not being able to drive anymore. The abandonment of being behind the wheel is often the last and greatest bastion of freedom relinquished, most often as a result of aging. Those so affected feel the pressure, usually coming from others, of being torn between wanting to drive, to enjoy the open road, to reach a desired destination, believing they can do it, yet putting themselves in harm's way. Loved ones who ride as passengers experience their decline in depth perception and reflexes. They offer to drive them, but denial and stubbornness may cause the defiant to balk at thinking that they are no longer capable of driving when, in fact, their actions can result in serious accidents, even criminal prosecution. It is easy for us, still fully capable of driving, to believe that when our time comes, we will accept our fate and request to be driven to places. Hopefully we will heed these words of advice.
Even those of us with the greatest of reflexes feel the pressure of driving during a hard rain, especially when the risk of an accident is increased while passing a large truck or semi. That pressure is self inflicted; the desire to reach a destination quicker. Our hearts beat faster, our bodies tense up during those blinding moments. Only after the pass is successfully completed do we relax and breathe a sigh of relief. For all of these moments, we have created a prison in our mind, a confinement that only ends if, and when, the pressure is finally over.
But I'm not speaking only of crimes tried in a criminal or civil court, with punishments handed down by a judge or jury. I'm also addressing crimes of morality and crimes against G-d's laws, and the devastating effects they can have, even when no earthly court of law can administer an adjudication. What are some of these crimes, who determines and carries out the punishments, and is there a way to lessen the severity of the sentence?
Sometimes the crime is a justification of entitlement. We, as hard working premium paying customers, feel the giant insurance agencies owe us much more than the actual damage done for a claim we may file. Let the claim include that car bumper which was previously damaged, or let it include a new paint job. Let's replace that old kitchen cabinetry when it is only the base which has sustained water damage. We wait with baited breath to see if the claim, in its entirety, is accepted and processed. If our claim is granted and the funds dispersed, we gladly accept the check and feel the payback is fair. In actuality we have asked for more than we truly deserve. What is the punishment? In the fiscal world, the insurance companies continue to reap their large profits by increasing the premiums of all their insured. In the spiritual world, The Almighty sees our actions for what they truly are; arrogant, haughty, greedy, and so judges us, when it is our turn to return to our Maker. G-d only knows what our punishment will be, but, as our sages taught us, repentance, charitable acts, and acts of loving kindness help avert a severe decree.
In an age where information is disseminated globally as it happens, or soon thereafter, we are quickly imprinted with a one sided picture of an event. Even within our community, we are told of happenings, and often times make judgments without authenticating the facts or investigating the full story. We believe what we saw or heard to be the truth, and pass the news along to others. This is how we commit the crime of lashan harah, also pronounced loshen hora, literally an evil tongue, "gossip" in the more familiar definition. What are the effects of gossip? For the one scorned, potentially a lifetime scar of humiliation, a lifetime of others believing the half truths or outright lies. And what of the fate of the gossiper? If the story proves false, a potential lifetime weighed with guilt and shame. The spreader of tales hopes that he or she is soon forgotten as the origin of maliciousness. The sad truth is that some who spread gossip pay no mind if the facts prove otherwise. They are thick skinned and, as the Bible states, stiff necked. They shrug it off and say "who cares?" For everyone's sake, it is vital to verify information, spend more time to get to the truth, before passing it on, if it need be passed on at all. Next time you have the urge to share news about someone, not your significant other or a good friend because you have the need to vent, remember tonight's sermon and realize that if it's truly nobody else's business, to keep it to yourself.
Bullying can be a related crime; picking on the passive, engaging gang mentality through the spreading of lies or debasing the values of those who live differently than we do. Tragically we read about teen suicides resulting from harassment and scaring the vulnerable, the socially inept, those of different skin colors, those who observe different religions, who have different sexual orientations. As is written in our precious Torah, from the very portion I will read tomorrow afternoon "v'ahavta l're'acha kamocha" - love your neighbor as you love yourself; that would be the ultimate goal. Let us at least raise our levels of tolerance, as it concerns those who are different than us. Do unto them as you would have them do unto you.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a prison of self abuse; alcoholics, drug addicts, those with eating disorders. I wage the battle of overeating every day. I am imprisoned in a mindset that has caused my weight to vacillate since childhood, with gains and losses of as much as 65 pounds. I have a better handle on it now than in years past, but my overeating continues to be a false consolation of comfort for my lack of discipline. It is a false consolation for, while I feel better during and immediately after I've eaten, I have to work harder to restore my body to its former and healthier condition. The punishments are the physical results we endure, conditions familiar to us all; obese or skeletal constitutions, high blood pressure, heart attacks, blockages, lower functioning organs, the list goes on and on. These abuses often also result in a litany of medications we are prescribed. As we get older the list may get longer, the dosages higher, and our ever changing bodies often react differently to these drugs.
What is the spiritual punishment for self abuse? It is the loss of quality time the abuser comes to realize in a non-abusive moment. It is the self-imposed degradation and humiliation the abuser suffers. It is realizing the hurt others feel, or have felt, during the stupors. We pray and hope that The Almighty will have rachamonus, mercy, in the final judgment, knowing that self abusers have suffered enough.
Similar to the punishment of a self abuser is that of a workaholic. This scenario is poignantly described in the song "Cats in the Cradle". The chorus uses nursery rhyme fragments as metaphors for a young son wishing his traveling father was less the wage earner and more his Dad. The cat's in the cradle (the boy is at home) the silver spoon (he has everything money can buy) little boy blue (the son is sad) and the man in the moon, is his Dad, so far away. The boy's coping method is to busy himself like his father did, at the father's expense, later in life. Just as substance abusers may realize that quality time has been wasted, so, too, workaholics may one day realize that time lost with their children can never be recovered. Their lost time IS their punishment. The possible abandonment by their children in later years, salt added to the very deep wound.
(Sing "Cat's in the Cradle")
When someone passes away, and people grieve, I say to the mourners that our hearts are not like time clocks we can punch in and punch out of whenever we wish. One mourns for as long as one feels the need to mourn. So, too, is it with teshuvah, returning to G-d, returning to holiness, turning around and returning on paths which have led us astray. I often wondered why, at the beginning of this service, all unfulfilled vows from the past year were annulled and forgiven by G-d. Then we go on, through tonight and tomorrow, confessing our sins. Wouldn't it have made more sense to annul the vows and be forgiven at the conclusion of tomorrow night? Wouldn't that truly clean our metaphoric slate for the coming year?
Our sages are teaching us an important lesson by arranging the prayers in this order. Yom Kippur ends tomorrow night, but our time to atone has no end. Even at the end of our days here on earth, I believe that unfinished business becomes finished through everlasting life. Any time is the right time to make amends, to right the wrongs, and make us better human beings. Let us break the chains that shackle us, let us leave the prisons that enslave us, let us tear down the walls that divide us. If you are that man or woman on the moon, come back to earth, spend more time with the ones you love. If you are that bully, stop the intimidation, look your victim in the eyes, reach out your hand and say "I'm truly sorry. Please forgive me". If you have a drinking, eating or drug problem, be big enough to admit you need help, and seek it! If you are a gossip, zip it! From Pirkey Avot, the Wisdom of the Fathers, we are taught to be content with our lot, the lot of our family and friends, and pay no mind to the world of rumors. The beauty of life, at least in the free world, is that we can make choices, change our minds, and choose derachim tovim, paths of goodness. Let us make those choices which lead to greater holiness and, in doing so, earn the highest place in heaven that we possibly can. Let us say Amen.