By Rabbi Batshir Torchio, ‘13
In his poem, “This Is Just To Say,” the American poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) describes a gesture of impulsive indulgence followed by an offer of questionable contrition.
This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
In addition to a Garden of Eden allusion (switch out apple for plum), and reminiscent of the manipulative maxim, “better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” this poem reads like a note one might leave on the kitchen counter, or beneath a magnet on the refrigerator door — or placed in a now empty bowl on the top shelf of the icebox. At first glance the poem’s simplicity hedges an embedded complexity. Why are the only two capitalizations assigned to the words “I” and “Forgive?” What about Williams’ enjambments, the way he has carefully grouped the three quatrains? And why is punctuation abandoned, aside from the two capitalizations? Food for thought.
But on the pshat level, the eater of the plums (not just one plum, mind you, but perhaps 2 or 3!) is offering an apology to the one who was probably saving them for breakfast. Forgive me. The reader is left wondering, was this an intentional selfish act of insensitive theft, or a mistake made impulsively, perhaps sleepily, by one whom, while licking plum juice from her or his fingers, felt traceable implication and rising remorse?
More than a hint of guilt runs down three consecutive adjectives at the close of the poem: delicious, sweet, and cold.
Rub it in, why don’t you?
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, addresses inadvertent and intentional transgressions amid the delineation of various types of sacrifices, the unappetizing gristle of animal slaughter, dashing of blood, breaking of pigeon necks, and soaking of entrails. For these reasons, Vayikra often rates a distant fifth place to the scintillating plots and poetry of its neighboring narratives. It’s a challenging read, yet its concerns are critical to unity and holiness, and for the psychological, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the Israelite community. What appears an abrupt shift from the brilliant illumination of God’s presence in the Tabernacle last week, to the punctilious prescriptions of animal sacrifice and ritual impurity this week, is really a seamless continuation of the fluid and dynamic development of intimacy among the Israelites, and between the individual and God. Offered in the sacred neighborhood of God’s presence, sacrifices were the ritual by which the Israelites approached God in joy and contrition. They are the means of ascent, which stand firmly on the ground of choice and morality.
Our ancestors confronted their human failings head-on, and the text states it plainly: we are utterly fallible; we will mess up, we will fall short, our ego will steer us toward hurtful impulses that damage relationships and obstruct our soul’s true purpose. Even the leaders and the priests will incur guilt. Vayikra pulls us back to center: Be vigilant; be holy!
But those plums! They look so delicious! And that apple…
Perhaps the most emotionally assuring expiation is the hattat offering brought by someone guilty of violating one of God’s commandments inadvertently. As Rabbi Schorsch, Chancellor Emeritus of Jewish Theological Seminary, explains it: “We are not talking of a willful transgression, but an honest mistake made out of ignorance or poor judgment… Human weakness and not subversion is the greatest threat to the well-being of the whole. Inadvertent mistakes abound, yet to admit them requires an act of self-transcendence.”
There is something so very powerful about that split-second moment between standing beneath divine light and innocently (or impulsively, or insensitively, or self-righteously) reaching for that plum.