Author’s Note: I know that Passover begins tomorrow night. As this is my first year writing a weekly Torah reflections, I want to concentrate on creating a baseline. (Although Pharaoh comes up in my comments) If you are interested in my work on Passover, then check out my Passover Quizzes and other writings! Have a great holiday! Chag Sameach!
You are a time machine. Look up at the stars tonight. What you see in the expanse is the light that was given off thousands or even millions of years ago. The universe is so vast that it takes that long for starlight to reach our retinas. Light from the moon comes to us in 1.3 seconds. Light from the sun warms our faces in just over 8 minutes from the time it exploded into existence. The pinprick of light you see might be from star that died before you were born. The world you experience is the blooming of the past into the present. Every moment you see or feel is tiny journey backwards in order to be fully present. Travel back in seconds, minutes and eons. You are a time machine.
The past is more than what you’ve done or where you’ve been. The past is who you are. You come from somewhere. You’ve made billions of choices. The past is a canvas upon which the masterpiece of your life is painted. Every choice you make. All the things that happen to you. They shape you. Guide you. Sometimes the past controls you.
Like it did with the first homeless man I ever met, “Jack,” who had PTSD. He lived under the freeway between my apartment and my synagogue. He was a veteran and was so traumatized by his experience of the past that he lost his girlfriend, then his other friends. He lost his home and job – all because the nightmares were too strong and he used drugs to make them go away. His past became Pharaoh. It captured him. Denigrated him. Enslaved him. He was stuck in the past with no escape. Without therapy he could never free himself from his personal Egypt. His time machine was broken.
Unfortunately Jack slipped through my fingers. I tried helping him from time to time but he was arrested and disappeared. In fact it was in my meeting with him that began my work with homeless. My experience with him shaped me profoundly. What we know is that if you want to move forward with your life you have for face your past. The rays of the sun are from a time gone by but they shed light on the path forward. The past blooms to the present, and opens a door to the future. If you want to step forward – and free yourself to the future – you must set your past on fire.
This is the central message of this week’s Torah portion Acharei Mot. Aaron, the High Priest of Israel, is commanded to enter the holiest of spaces in order to purge the entire nation of its past. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, he is to put on special clothes and goes to the altar and performs sacrifices of re-dedication by “purging the Shrine of the impurities and the transgressions of the Israelites- whatever their sins.” (Lev. 16:16)
Aaron who is a former slave, performed idolatry and lost his own children, now comes before God and purges his past by setting it on fire. His actions are an performance of atonement.
Atonement means to make yourself aware of what has happened – to push you into the past. The midrash adds that these special atonement sacrifices link past, present and future together. To make visible what is invisible. To uncover the hiddenness in your heart. (Sifra ch. 5) The fire of the sacrifice upon the altar opens the door to face the past and move into the future. It is fuel for the time machine. This is atonement. In doing so, Aaron sets himself free. Sets his family free. Sets everyone free, by setting it all on fire.
If you want to make the move into the future and better your life, ask yourself, is your past an anchor or an altar? Does it weigh you down, or give you the fuel to change?
You cannot step into the future you imagine until you purge your past. Purge your hate. Purge your shame. Purge your guilt. Set your past on fire.
You are shaped by your past, but it does not have to be your Pharoah. You can free yourself. No matter what it is you think you’ve done. No matter what others have told you. Whatever sins you have commited, there is a way to make your life better. You have to make the choice to change. You can sit and wallow in your failure and see your life as nothing but dust and ashes, or you can stand up and use the ashes to create a world for yourself anew. You are a time machine. You can travel to the past, but you cannot go into the future unless you set your past on fire.