This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward… (Walter Benjamin, Theses on History)
Zizek notes that the pile continues to grow skyward, why is there no resolution, why isn’t the debris cleared? What is preventing the pile from dissipating? Zizek proposes that one the one hand there can be resolution, for some catastrophes there must be no attempt at “resolution”, much as trying to make sense of or come to a resolution of events like genocide or slavery. This is why at the end of the book of Job, God essentially agrees with Job and never provides an “answer”, and even if Job rebuilds and creates a new family, it is not expected that things will have “returned to normal”. On the other hand, he proposes that Benjamin meant a kind of divine “emancipatory” violence that moves history forward, a political explosion that Zizek then tries to read as a form of ultimate love.
Traditionally, on Yom Kippur, when we think of repentance, traditionally we say that the day of Yom Kippur itself heals “religious” ritual sins, Sabbath violations, improper foods, etc, however, in order to heal sins of individuals against other individuals, rituals and prayers are inadequate, but rather a face to face request for forgiveness is necessary.
Yet, the traditional texts do refer to the matter of greater catastrophes. The Sefat Emet quotes an early Midrash, the Tana D’vei Eliyahu, as linking Yom Kippur to the sin of the golden calf. If one counts the days from the sin of the golden calf and the smashing of the first Luhot (tablets of the law) on the Ninth of Av, and the second 40 days in which Moses ascends back up on Mt Sinai, then it works out that Yom Kippur is the day the second set of Luhot were brought down. The midrash states that in order to prevent the earlier mistake, the People of Israel fasted and cried all night on the final night, were appeased, and the day, which corresponds to Yom Kippur, was fixed as a day of atonement for the generations.
The Sefat Emet, in his reading of this text, notes that the Temple service as described in the Torah is done specifically by Aaron the high priest, and the reason for this is that it was Aaron who sinned with the people and thus he leads the people in repentance with him and this complete unity of leadership and people caused the healing to be engraved upon their hearts and enabled the proper reception of the tablets of the law, of the divine covenant.
Let us remember, what was the sin of the golden calf? It was, as we wrote in the essay for Ki Tissa, a crisis of leadership, with Moses gone, Aaron was afraid that in the absence of a strong symbolic leadership, the exodus project might collapse. While Aaron’s intentions were good, it was a devastating political failure to pledge allegiance to an orange-gold symbol of hedonistic deviance, an idol image that was popular among the masses, EVEN if it seemed at the time to be “good for Israel”. This “red wave” did not make the Israelites “great again” and in fact ultimately led to great destruction.
This political error was a great catastrophe that the classical texts tell us is still unresolved, and in a sense lingers on in all the communal (political) errors made throughout history. The Sefat Emet states:
… In truth, the sin of the golden calf is preserved throughout the generations, however, every Yom Kippur we can atone a bit for this sin, we can enter the gates of holiness and alter our hearts…
In other words, aside from the ritual sins requiring absolution, and the interpersonal sins that require resolution, there is an aspect of Yom Kippur that demands a rethinking of sins and errors in the political sphere. We need to consider again, whether following a gold covered but ultimately corrupt symbol, even if it appears to be “good for Israel” at the moment, must be rejected and tossed into the too-high pile of debris accumulated over the centuries, for the sake of communal healing.
…This storm is what we call progress.