On inadvertent flubs
What happens to you when you make an unintentional error? Do you find yourself reeling? Can you just roll with it? Unintentional flubs are unique in that regard I think. The self-talk that results in my mind is much worse than when I commit an act with intent.
Last week, I made a really dumb mistake. I didn’t intend to do it but it happened. In the grand scheme of life, it really didn’t matter much, save for a few logistical complications that could later be solved but in the moment, I felt absolutely awful. Awful for screwing something up. Awful for causing frustration for Lauren. And mostly awful for the feeling I had toward myself.
That part was the most awful because of the voice that comes alive when we make a dumb mistake, especially one that is inadvertent. The voice in my head called me dumb. It was intense. It lasted for a long time. There was a sort of destructive residue left over.
It was only with the passage of time, a supportive, patient, and loving partner, and actually noticing what was happening that I realized how to move forward. I had to really be alone with that voice and recognize its destructive power. I couldn’t just simply ignore it or pretend it wasn’t there, a lesson we can also draw out of the Torah this week.
In this week’s portion, we read of the fascinating infrastructure of the cities of refuge. In a situation where a person commits involuntary manslaughter, there is an opportunity for the next of kin of the deceased to get vengeance on the perpetrator. In order to escape this avenger, the aforementioned inadvertent sinner can find refuge in this city, remaining safely there for a period of time.
When we think about the whole situation, there’s certainly something brilliant about it. Anticipating the blood-thirst and desire for revenge that will be born from this act, the Torah safeguards the life of the one who commits the act. On the other hand though, it feels a bit harsh. There was no intent at all! Now they have to exile themselves to this city of Levites, a land that is for the landless. Why can’t they just ask for forgiveness, forget about the sin, and go on their way?
To answer this question, and perhaps speak to this earlier voice I mentioned, we turn to the Sefat Emet, the great Hassidic master of Ger, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter. He argues that when you inadvertently err, not only is the sin created but also a destructive force alongside it. This force causes a person to have a loss of sense of space and location. Ultimately, that is why this person has to go to the city of refuge. In its confines, repair can be made because in that lacking of of who and where you are, you can find something special.
An unintentional sinner carries their sin and this force around with them. Anyone who has been in this situation knows this feeling—that baggage you lug around with you—that sense of what did I do? what should I do? where should I go?
So, when it comes to why you need a city of refuge, it is not just that the sin itself should be dealt with but also the destructive force alongside it. In the Sfat Emet’s words, when you unintentionally commit this act, you “lose your place.” He doesn’t use the terminology but he is talking about a psychological experience that drives the repentance process – the feeling of a loss of place.
This is what happens when we inadvertently sin argues the Sfat Emet. We know this feeling. We can recognize that gnawing question of why did I do this? Who am I? Where do I belong?
It is in this loss of palace that one needs to turn to God and this is ideally what happens in the city of refuge. With nothing else to cling to, God becomes the only thing for the inadvertent sinner. Remember, this is in the framework of a serious believer but I think the notion still holds. Finding yourself alone with your error and really processing it can be deeply impactful.
When you commit such an error, you can’t just return to your regular old ways, trying to cut yourself off from the sin, as it were. Oh, yeah, that’s over, you might tell yourself. It is what it is, and I have to move forward. That action though created certain circumstances and these circumstances will accompany you even if you return to the routine of your life. That is what makes this destructive voice so powerful.
According to the Sefat Emet, the sinner must experience the feeling of "where are you?" Where am I in the world? Unless you actually deal with the destructive force of the sin, it will continue to follow you around.
Our version of this city of refuge is actually sitting with and grappling with the voice of the destructive part of sin. When we commit those acts, in deed, word, or some other form, even when inadvertent, we create that force. It is that voice that tells us we’re less than, worse than, or bad. We have to really deal with that!
“Forgetting” about the sin is like what I do when I throw my shoes in the closet instead of putting them on the actual shoe holder device (Sorry, Lauren!). At some point, that pile is coming a tumbling down. Similarly, if we carry on as if nothing happened, that sin will seep into us. That voice can haunt us.
We have to exile ourselves to that “city of refuge.” In that place of loss of location, where we come to meet that voice, there is hope. When we find ourselves there with the proper mindset, we can rid ourselves of the sin itself, moving beyond it. Even more powerfully, we can find a way to also eradicate that voice of destruction that creeps in way too easily with each inadvertent slip up that we have. So that the next time it happens, we are even better prepared to meet that voice, and not let its destructive power affect us in as strong a manner.