Yesterday I went to Salem for a church event, and while I was there I had the chance to talk to a friend of mine who is getting married in a couple of months. In between our other duties, she commented at some length, and with some ferocity, about the difficulties that she and her fiancé have had of late, because it looks like both of them will be looking for work during the summer because of difficulties they had at the YMCA. Given the context of the conversation, I commented that it seemed as if the person they had problems with was rather insecure and threatened, and that the fact that two people under her chain of command, even though not each other’s, were getting married contained the threat of networks of relationships. It was clear, at any rate, that the two of them were being given a fresh start in that both will be looking for work at the same time, which suggests that marriages which involve the workplace may increase dangers when office politics goes sour, as it tends to do from time to time. I certainly hope for my friends that the new start is a good one, but it is clear that the two of them are entering into a different stage of life, and getting a clean slate, as it were. This is especially interesting as it was their experiences working together that led the person in the couple I know better, a young woman with an adorable and highly entertaining daughter , into our church in the first place.
Not everyone has such an easy, or worthwhile, time finding a fresh start. I can think of at least one friend of mine who sought a new start in a way that is likely to lead to immense personal tragedy. I got to know the particular friend I am thinking of as a penpal, and it turned out that she had a dramatic life story, in that she had been a survivor of rape, but yet as a young woman she found herself attracted to Islam because of the promise of a fresh start and a reputation as an undefiled woman with her past done away with, and with some kind of reconstructive surgery on top of that. Yet the upshot of it was that she ended up being sent as a bride overseas, likely never to be heard from again by friends and family, to someone with particular tastes for a Western bride of unblemished character. I have heard of other people who made the same sort of decision, who were attracted to fairly harsh religious worldviews that came with a promise of being viewed as the person they are and not the person that they were, simply because it was impossible for their pasts to be forgotten by the people or within the communities where they came from.
One of my favorite aspects of the Sabbath, when viewed in its larger context , is the fact that it was meant to give a fresh start on a variety of levels. Every week people were to rest and give praise to God and come together in worship, where they were to be treated with equality, seeing as God shows no partiality by the qualities that divide us and so often pit us against each other. Every Sabbath year, debts are forgiven, and every Jubilee year land is supposed to be restored to its original owners so that there is no permanent aristocracy or landless underclass. This was the way it was meant to be, though in ancient Israel it appears that neither the land Sabbath nor the Jubilee were actually undertaken, for a variety of reasons—those who had benefitted from the misfortune or folly of others were unwilling to hit the reset button, there was an unwillingness to wipe the slate clean and let go of the debts owed in the past, and there was a lack of trust that God would provide when the land was resting and being transferred to its original owning family. Yet this is a matter of difficulty in areas beyond agriculture, to every aspect of our lives.
How does one get a new start, and how does one give one to others? What sort of rituals of penitence do we require for others to receive our grace, and what kind of processes do we have for signaling to others that we have forgiven them for the past. In the Bible we have a strange sort of asymmetry that needs to be recognized. We are cursed to the third or fourth generation but blessed to the thousands of generations. There are periodic times of forgiving debts and cleaning the slate, but covenants are far more lasting, some until death and some without end. Some sins lead to a cutting off of ties, by removing people from the people, some of them lead to generations of people who are estranged from the congregation of the Eternal, and still others force ties together as a way of making the best out of bad situations. Yet those covenants that are forced are not forced to bring harm to others, but rather to force responsibility for one’s actions. Marriage being considered to be until death is not a way to force people to remain in abusive situations, but it is a way of making sure that people cannot dodge their responsibility to provide and care for others. Many of us are far too hasty to enter into covenants and contracts, not thinking of the level of commitment that we are really making.
Why is this so? We find periodic and frequent forgiveness for our sins because we fall short and need to be restored. We are all deeply imperfect human beings, and yet we forget this fact when it comes to other people seeking to become right with us. Yet at the same time we fail to recognize how essential it is that our commitments and ties be solid. We live this life playing for eternity, with stakes that are far more massive than we can conceive of. We deal with these matters by making our ties solid, by learning how to be gracious and forgiving, as well as being tender and understanding with others, and by learning as best as we can to never let others go even as God never lets us go. We are to become like Him, and that means struggling with the silence when one gets up early to send out prophets and messengers with no reply at all, or loving and being gracious even when one is continually misunderstood. The freshness of our starts still depends on the preservation and endurance of the ties that bind us together.
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 See, for example: