In the Torah, Aaron puts his hands on the goat to rid the Israelites of their sins and their involuntary transgressions. I understood how sin was something that should be removed, but why should I worry about involuntary transgressions? Am I responsible for what I didn’t intend to do? Of course not.
Something nagged me to learn more. I listened to part of a talk by a Hassidic rabbi about involuntary transgressions. It seemed like a silly topic… but still, something was calling me to learn more.
I wasn’t paying much attention to the beginning of the talk… I did hear him mumbling about the problem of moving a bench. He spoke a little about the various ways we can move a bench. Then he asked, “Suppose the bench weighs 200 pounds. What then? If you aren’t careful you will leave a trough.” I didn’t connect this to involuntary transgressions. I just assumed that he was talking about something else… and he’d get to the matter at hand.
Later that evening, our Zen teacher was scolding us about how we were moving the chairs, as another Zen teacher had scolded me months ago. I should have known better, living with someone who practices Japanese tea ceremony. But as I heard the scolding, I thought of the rabbi moving a bench. Our focus might be on getting the bench from point A to point B. But in doing so, there might be collateral damage, so to speak.
Back to the lecture. The rabbi apologetically gave the too graphic example of a father whose daughter tells him that she’d like to play with a chicken’s head. So the loving father cuts off the head for his daughter. He should have known that the chicken would die a needless death, but he overlooked that with the job at hand: pleasing his daughter. If we had confronted him on his seemingly benevolent act, he’d be quick to respond that he was just expressing his love for his daughter by fulfilling her desire for a toy.
The scapegoat, so to speak, was his intention. It reminded me of the saying that we judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their actions. Certainly it is not a fair game. And I can see how one can muster up a great deal of anger from not understanding how someone might criticize us for killing the chicken, even when we just wanted to express love.
My mind thought back to when my dad, acting out of the best of intentions, disappointed me. He was a good lawyer, and as such, could find convincing excuses for whatever he had done. He also had been on the University of Chicago debate team, and could take any side of a discussion at ease. He even could do this on his death bed, while taking morphine for great pain from pancreatic cancer. But that’s another story.
I had a sick goldfish. Well, it actually had been torn into pieces by our neighbor’s cat and was floating on the surface of our pond. It was a sorry sigh and I was devastated. I insisted to my parents that we go to the pet store and get some pills. We did, and put the pills in the pond. The next day, the goldfish was happily swimming in the pond. I’m not sure if I saw the original goldfish later that day in the garbage can, or if that's something I’m just imagining… but the image is just as real. In fact, I killed a goldfish a few years later so I could watch it die. But that’s still another story.
I was very disappointed in my dad for lying to me because he didn’t want me to be sad. My parents believed that “life was for the living” and we had no time for death. Was it skillful means? Or was this an opportunity for me to learn about death, a subject painful for him having lost his father at an early age? He never saw that he had done anything wrong. Perhaps, as in the classic Buddhist story, I was in a burning house unwilling to stop playing with my toys and my father lied because it was the only way he could get me out of his house. I do know how I felt: deceived.
A few years later, I was playing with some kids and Rodney Banks (I hope he finds this so I can tell him how sorry I am) wanted to play with us. He was younger, and we didn’t want to play with him. He wouldn’t leave us alone, so I started throwing pebbles at his. One hit him just below the eye. I found out later that day, after he had gone to the hospital, that he could have lost his eye sight in one eye. In the meantime, my friends and I went to my room and made a list of 20 reasons why it was ok that I have thrown a rock at him. We were innocent, we concluded.
That was the first of 100s of 1000s of involuntary transgressions that I have done. All were very defensible (I am my father’s son), and all wrong.
In the shower this morning, I thought about how, in a Zen reading group last night, I was once again criticized for believing that Zen could end suffering. We laughed at various zen sayings. The one I’ve heard in the past is that “Zen is good for nothing.” So why in the world would you do something (that isn’t easy) for no reason whatsoever? I tried to see if there was a connection between believing there would be some gain to Zen practice, and, to up the ante, to connect this to why my friend was so mad when I suggested the other day that life is a game.
As the warm water was making my sore shoulder feel better, something started to come together. First, the rhyming words gain and game are friends. They go together. There is an end in sight, and the strategy is to get a result in the end. It reminded me of a Zen saying about how could we walk the path if one eye was on the destination. Being present means having both eyes on the path.
So what does this have to do with involuntary transgressions? The man who cut off the chicken’s head without realizing he was killing the chicken had one eye on the goal: pleasing his daughter. My dad pleased me by switching the goldfish, and also excused himself from having to explain death to his son. Saul Alinsky asked, “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?” Justify is another word for pleading innocent for an involuntary transgression.
Rather than thinking that I really don’t need to pay attention to my involuntary transgressions, I realized that most of the harm that I cause is the result of these actions. The voluntary transgressions are not so frequent. What impacts the world, and what comes back to haunt me, is all those things that I “innocently” do or don’t do that have a negative effect. I can defend them all, as my father taught me so well. Or I can “watch my step,” as the saying goes, lifting up the chair to move it.