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The Atonement

by Lawrence Kushner

There is a story told of Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk.

There once came before the Rabbi a man whose life, having been marked with many sins, wished to make repentance. He sought direction in ordering whatever acts might be necessary for a complete return.

Rabbi Elimelekh consented and told the man that first he would have to liquidate all his assets. The furniture, the jewelry, the real estate, the inheritance. And with everything thus converted into cash he was to come back. Only then would the Rabbi help him to make repentance. The man did so and stood now with everything he owned as a pile of money on the table in front of the sage. It was a great liquid fortune. The bills were paid. The last links severed.

"Now we are ready to begin to order the repentance. Write for us," asked Elimelekh, "all you sins and evil doings and transgressions on a sheet of paper and give it to me."

Again, the man did as he was told and Elimelekh then began to read the confession aloud. The man was overcome by the weight of his own shame and guilt but the Rabbi read on. After a short time even the Rabbi seemed shocked by the enormity of the sins and himself cried out in pain. "How could one do such things?" The man swooned and fell to the floor unconscious. But Elimelekh revived him and went on with the reading. Again the sage cried out in astonishment and again the man collapsed at the recounting of his own wickedness, only to be reawakened by the sage. This crying out in disbelief and fainting and reviving went on seven times during the reading of the list.

When at last the ordeal was completed, Rabbi Elimelekh shook his head. "For sins as grave as these there can be but one atonement: death. Such would have been the verdict of the High Court when the Temple still stood. The means for such an execution are burning."

And the Rabbi then explained how such a capital punishment was to be carried out according to ancient legal tradition. They would take molten lead and pour it down the throat, thus burning the condemned man from the inside. But even when the man heard this, his desire to make repentance was so great that he willingly accepted the verdict and with trembling, the punishment. "I will do whatever must be done."

He took a few coins from the pile of money before him and bought a metal spoon, some tin (for the flux), and some lead. He then returned to the Rabbi's house. There Elimelekh told him to make the fire and melt the tin and the lead in the spoon, being careful to see to it that they were properly mixed. The man did all this with complete devotion.

And when he reported the smelting done, the Rabbi asked him to lay himself on the floor and put on a blindfold. Rabbi Elimelekh then had him recite the final confession which the man did with a broken heart and great trembling. He took upon himself full responsibility for his sins and their punishment. He recited the six words of the Shema, the declaration of God's unity.

"Now open your mouth so that I may pour the molten lead down your throat..." At that instant, the Rabbi took instead a spoonful of marmalade and put it in the man's open mouth.

"You have made full atonement. Now get up, stand on your feet, serve the One whose Name is blessed, for you are another being. Take this money on the table and use it as a righteous man ..."

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Consciousness dies not when we die, but once we are willing to enter the Nothingness. Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezritch taught that "a person needs to regard [himself] as if [he] were nothing. Forget yourself in every way .... Only then will you be able to attain ultimate preparation, which is the same as the world of consciousness, for there, everything is equal. Life and death, sea and dry land .."

Only after Abraham is man able to say, "I too want to be buried here," does he emerge from the cave. Only once Abraham is willing to concede his won mortality is he able to return to life.

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Excerpt from The River of Light: Spirituality, Judaism, Consciousness by Lawrence Kushner (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1990). Copyright © 1990 by Lawrence Kushner. $14.95 + $3.50 s/h. Order by mail or call 800-962-4544. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091

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