Recovering from Moral Injury: Rosh HaShanah 5779

Out damn spot! Out I say! Who said that line? [Reply] Correct, this is perhaps the most famous line in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, and it belongs to his wife, Lady Macbeth. Macbeth was the murderer, but it was she who goaded her husband on to the heinous act of killing their houseguest King Duncan. It was she who took the bloody daggers from her husband and placed them on the sleeping guards to frame them. She literally had blood on her hands, and now she can’t forget.

Initially the Macbeths seem to have succeeded in covering their crime, becoming king and queen, but did they really escape punishment? Macbeth is tormented by apparitions of Duncan and Banquo, his former friend whom he had killed. Lady Macbeth falls to pieces. By Act V she starts sleep-walking, talking in her sleep, rubbing her hands, seeking to cleanse them of their blood guilt. But her heart is tainted and so too, in her eyes, are her hands.

The idea of clean hands being associated with a pure heart goes back further than Macbeth. Psalm 24, which is associated with Rosh HaShanah, asks:

(ג) מִֽי־יַעֲלֶ֥ה בְהַר־יְקֹוָ֑ק וּמִי־יָ֝קוּם בִּמְק֥וֹם קָדְשֽׁוֹ: (ד) נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּֽבַר־לֵ֫בָ֥ב אֲשֶׁ֤ר׀ לֹא־נָשָׂ֣א לַשָּׁ֣וְא נַפְשִׁ֑י וְלֹ֖א נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לְמִרְמָֽה: (ה) יִשָּׂ֣א בְ֭רָכָה מֵאֵ֣ת יְקֹוָ֑ק וּ֝צְדָקָ֗ה מֵאֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעֽוֹ:

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in God’s holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life, or sworn deceitfully. That person shall carry away a blessing from the Lord, a just reward from God, the deliverer.

Is it only the perfect saint who can stand on the mountain of the Lord, the one who has never sinned? What about teshuvah? Is some guilt just stained too deeply to be removed?

We saw a fine production of Macbeth this summer in the Berkshires. I remembered the line about the spot, but not the longer exchange between Macbeth and the doctor in scene 3. Macbeth speaks to the doctor about his wife, asking him, “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of brain, and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart.” The doctor replies, “Therein the patient must minister to himself.”

Evil weighs upon the heart, and it is not easily expunged. The Macbeths have polluted themselves with evil, and there is no way to purify themselves. Not that they really tried. The King and Queen are counterexamples for the process of teshuvah. Instead of confessing their crime, they cover it up and blame others. Instead of accepting consequences and punishment, they claim the crown. Instead of offering apologies and recompense, or even praying for forgiveness, they battle on, right to their own destruction.

But the truth is that even people who regret the harm that they have caused are hard-pressed to heal. After all, Duncan and Banquo were dead, and nothing would bring them back. The premise of repentance is that some things can be done to mitigate the damage caused to others, and to heal from what has come to be known as moral injury. Few goals are harder achieved.

In 1994, Dr. Jonathan Shay published a book called Achilles in Vietnam. He described the vets he worked with as being like Achilles—traumatized by their experience, and not only by what had happened to them. Many were equally traumatized by what they had done to others. The experience of war had for many soldiers shattered their self-image as good people. They had suffered moral injuries.

This idea of moral injury has become more broadly discussed recently. On June 13, 2018, Eyal Press published an article in the NY Times Magazine called, “The Wounds of the Drone Warrior.” In it he describes soldiers who have caused terrible suffering. Not unlawfully, and not even unethically—in many cases they attacked a target following protocol, but then discovered among the dead large numbers of civilians, so-called collateral damage. These soldiers can’t unsee what they have seen, and more importantly, they can’t undo what they have done. They cannot forget, or forgive themselves.

Press tells about one soldier who thought his unit was under attack from a building, so he called in an air strike. Afterwards he found 36 unarmed people dead inside. Now he is trapped with that memory. He sits in a support group, lighting 36 candles in their memory, trying to honor their lives, and to make sense of his own. He is injured, and there is no simple way to heal.

It seems that drone operators are especially prone to moral injury. Unlike fighter jet pilots, they do not scream through the skies at supersonic speeds, dropping their loads and departing. Unlike foot soldiers, they do not experience personal danger and loss. Their work is often tedious, but they spend hours, days and months tracking their targets, watching them live their lives, eat their meals, play with their children. And even after the attack, the drone continues to watch the aftermath—and these operators see it all. Many are deeply shaken by what they have seen, by what they have done. The fact that they are not in danger—that they get to go home to their families each night—in some ways makes it worse. Like Lady Macbeth, they cannot rest, they cannot recover their self-image, even if, like her, they felt that their actions were mandated and justified.

Therapists who work with these soldiers offer guidance on how to recover from moral injury. The first step is to tell the story—the narrative helps to reassemble coherence to a life and its darkest moments. The confession allows a person to acknowledge the damage, and still to be viewed and to view themselves as a decent person. The second step is to engage in moral actions—to establish the worth of one’s life, even if the damage cannot be undone. And the third is to find a spiritual practice that gives one the community, the hope, that one can be valued by others and by God. What they are describing is what we know as teshuvah.

These are very dramatic stories—probably more dramatic than what you and I have experienced. But many people have survived a traumatic experience, and some continue to replay their decisions, to question, to worry. Just last weekend I spoke with a doctor about medical errors. He said he sometimes thinks for example, “If only I had started the anti-fungal meds a day earlier, maybe the patient would have survived.”

We are not all soldiers, or physicians, or rescue workers, but we are all exposed to life and death situations. Some of us know people who died by suicide and ask ourselves terrible questions. Could I have anticipated this? Could I have said something different to them to show my love and appreciation for their life? Such questions are not fair, but often they remain with us. I had a friend who died that way many years ago—just around the holidays. He had called me to wish Shanah tovah and we had a short conversation about nothing much. And then he was gone. I wonder—could I have said something different to give him hope? I saw an exhibit called “Goodbye” this summer commemorating 38 people in a native Alaskan community who died by suicide—there were 38 single gloves, pointing up, a ghostly reminder of the hands that once filled them, of their solitude and sorrow.

Live long enough and you witness moral injury; and unless you are very lucky, you may have some part in some moral injury. What then? Can we ever cleanse our hands? On these Days of Awe, we are supposed to look at our hands, to review what we have done, and to purify our hearts. We want to stand on the Lord’s mountain—to be considered righteous. But first we must identify the flaws in our conduct, and develop a plan for repair, and for improvement.

Now let us raise our gaze above the individual plane. What about our collective actions? After all, the high holidays are all about collective confessions, and about collective responsibility. How are we doing all together? There is much good that we claim, but at the risk of being a bit political, I feel the need to name a great evil done in our collective name this year.

I refer to the separation of parents and children who entered the country illegally at the southern border. 2600 children aged zero to 17 were separated from their parents, often without any effort to identify them for later unification. Indeed, there are still about 500 separated, some under the age of 5. While this type of thing had started as early as 2014, it greatly accelerated in May when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry into he country, even for people claiming asylum.

Two thirds of Americans were reported to oppose this separation policy and many of us protested against it. JTS signed the JCPA’s forceful statement, many of us attended protests and signed petitions, and Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay and Rabbi David Hoffman both traveled to the border with Mexico to protest the policy and witness the horror. All of this was necessary and helpful, and yet real damage was done to our country. We are living in a moment of diminished responsibility to law, and justice and righteousness. We are living with moral injury, and it is taking a toll. What is to be done? Can dirty hands and an impure heart ever become whole once again? Can teshuvah be done on a national scale?

For a biblical example of moral injury let’s go to the most infamous of them all. King David, who wrote beautiful poetry and was a great warrior, sinned grievously when he slept with and impregnated Bathsheba, a married woman, then summoned her husband Uriah back from the front to try to cover his tracks. Uriah refused to sleep at home, instead sleeping on the ground in the street before returning to battle. There David arranged for him to be endangered and killed. Then David married Bathsheba and thought he had gotten away with it. But the prophet Natan accused him, saying אתה האיש, you are the man who has sinned, and you will suffer. Natan announces that God will afflict the child, and so it happens.

For seven days, while the child is dying, David lies on the ground and fasts. As Robert Alter notes, “David’s acts pointedly replicate those of the man he murdered.” But it is to no avail. The child dies, and then David goes on living. In some ways he is whole—he and Bat Sheva have another child, Solomon, whose name implies wholeness (שלימות), and tranquility (שלום). But the house of David will never be whole again.

David will not be able to build the temple, and he will not die fully at peace. And yet, even though the harm he has done is irreparable, David’s soul is not beyond repair. In Psalm 51 he is depicted confessing his sins, saying that they are before his eyes all day long: “For I know my sins; my crime is before me always.” He asks God to create for him a pure heart and a proper spirit, not to cast him away or remove God’s holy spirit. These words have been integrated into our prayers of selihot, of forgiveness.

תהלים פרק נא, א-כא

(א) לַמְנַצֵּ֗חַ מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִֽד: (ב) בְּֽבוֹא־אֵ֭לָיו נָתָ֣ן הַנָּבִ֑יא כַּֽאֲשֶׁר־בָּ֝֗א אֶל־בַּת־שָֽׁבַע: (ג) חָנֵּ֣נִי אֱלֹהִ֣ים כְּחַסְדֶּ֑ךָ כְּרֹ֥ב רַ֝חֲמֶ֗יךָ מְחֵ֣ה פְשָׁעָֽי: (ד) הרבה הֶ֭רֶב כַּבְּסֵ֣נִי מֵעֲוֹנִ֑י וּֽמֵחַטָּאתִ֥י טַהֲרֵֽנִי: (ה) כִּֽי־פְ֭שָׁעַי אֲנִ֣י אֵדָ֑ע וְחַטָּאתִ֖י נֶגְדִּ֣י תָמִֽיד: (ו) לְךָ֤ לְבַדְּךָ֨׀ חָטָאתִי֘ וְהָרַ֥ע בְּעֵינֶ֗יךָ עָ֫שִׂ֥יתִי לְ֭מַעַן תִּצְדַּ֥ק בְּדָבְרֶ֗ךָ תִּזְכֶּ֥ה בְשָׁפְטֶֽךָ: (ז) הֵן־בְּעָו֥וֹן חוֹלָ֑לְתִּי וּ֝בְחֵ֗טְא יֶֽחֱמַ֥תְנִי אִמִּֽי: (ח) הֵן־אֱ֭מֶת חָפַ֣צְתָּ בַטֻּח֑וֹת וּ֝בְסָתֻ֗ם חָכְמָ֥ה תוֹדִיעֵֽנִי: (ט) תְּחַטְּאֵ֣נִי בְאֵז֣וֹב וְאֶטְהָ֑ר תְּ֝כַבְּסֵ֗נִי וּמִשֶּׁ֥לֶג אַלְבִּֽין: (י) תַּ֭שְׁמִיעֵנִי שָׂשׂ֣וֹן וְשִׂמְחָ֑ה תָּ֝גֵ֗לְנָה עֲצָמ֥וֹת דִּכִּֽיתָ: (יא) הַסְתֵּ֣ר פָּ֭נֶיךָ מֵחֲטָאָ֑י וְֽכָל־עֲוֹ֖נֹתַ֣י מְחֵֽה: (יב) לֵ֣ב טָ֭הוֹר בְּרָא־לִ֣י אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְר֥וּחַ נָ֝כ֗וֹן חַדֵּ֥שׁ בְּקִרְבִּֽי: (יג) אַל־תַּשְׁלִיכֵ֥נִי מִלְּפָנֶ֑יךָ וְר֥וּחַ קָ֝דְשְׁךָ֗ אַל־תִּקַּ֥ח מִמֶּֽנִּי:

Yet admitting error is not easy for the person who sinned, and in fact it isn’t easy either for the people attached to them. The rabbis seemed to have special difficulty admitting that David sinned. They explained away his sins—saying that Uriah had actually written a divorce for Bathsheba before leaving for war; or that he was tempted but didn’t really sin. For example, the Talmud states:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף נו עמוד א

אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: כל האומר דוד חטא – אינו אלא טועה, שנאמר ויהי דוד לכל דרכיו משכיל וה’ עמו וגו’, אפשר חטא בא לידו ושכינה עמו? אלא מה אני מקיים מדוע בזית את דבר ה’ לעשות הרע – שביקש לעשות ולא עשה.

Rabbi Shmuel b”r Nahmani says in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: whoever says that David sinned is mistaken, for it says, “David was wise in all his ways, and the Lord was with him.” Is it possible that he sinned with the Shekhinah by his side? But then how do I understand the words [of Nathan] “How have you spurned the word of the Lord to do evil?” He was tempted to evil but didn’t do it.

Dr. Avigdor Shinan wrote an article on the image of David in Rabbinic Literature, דמות המלך דוד בספרות חז”ל, and he offers a theory for the rabbinic whitewash of David’s sins. First, the rabbis generally try to purify biblical heroes of their sins. Second, some of the great rabbis such as Judah the Prince saw themselves as descendants of David. For whatever reason, these sages may have deprived us of an opportunity to learn from error.

There is one rabbinic text that acknowledges the two most egregious errors recorded in the Bible—the sin of the golden calf, and the murder/adultery of King David—were reported intentionally, as a lesson for all of us. In Bavli AZ 4b, Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi claims that these sins were intended to give an opening to repentance. Rashi explains that if a person tells you that there is no point in repenting—that they will never be forgiven, you tell them, look at the golden calf. They atoned and were accepted in their return. Look at David; he confessed his sin and sought forgiveness. The damage could not be undone, but his soul could slowly heal as he continued to live a better life.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף ד עמוד ב

וא”ר יהושע בן לוי: לא עשו ישראל את העגל אלא ליתן פתחון פה לבעלי תשובה, שנאמר: מי יתן והיה לבבם זה להם ליראה אותי כל הימים וגו’. והיינו דא”ר יוחנן משום ר”ש בן יוחאי: לא דוד ראוי לאותו מעשה, ולא ישראל ראוין לאותו מעשה; לא דוד ראוי לאותו מעשה, דכתיב: ולבי חלל בקרבי; ולא ישראל ראוין לאותו מעשה, דכתיב: מי יתן והיה לבבם זה להם ליראה אותי כל הימים, אלא למה עשו?

רש”י מסכת עבודה זרה דף ד עמוד ב

לא עשו ישראל את העגל – כלומר גבורים ושליטים ביצרם היו ולא הי’ ראוי להתגבר יצרם עליהן אלא גזירת מלך היתה לשלוט בם כדי ליתן פתחון פה לבעלי תשובה שאם יאמר החוטא לא אשוב שלא יקבלני אומרים לו צא ולמד ממעשה העגל שכפרו ונתקבלו בתשובה. מי יתן והיה לבבם זה וגו’ – בסיני נאמר אלמא גבורים ואמיצי לבב ביראתם היו. [לאותו מעשה – דבת שבע].

Imagine if Lady Macbeth and Macbeth himself had changed their behavior, if they had relinquished their power, confessed their sins, begged forgiveness from the children of Duncan and Banquo? Imagine if they had had that courage. They could not undo the evil done to others, but they could begin to root the evil from their hearts, to change.

In Psalm 51, David admits his errors, and then asks this of God: Create within me a pure heart; renew within me a proper spirit. Cast me not from your presence; take not your holy spirit from me. Our sins may be small in comparison, but our opportunity to change remains great. Let us use these days to think about our individual and collective failings, to identify specific injuries that require repair, to confess, to change and to ask forgiveness.

As we begin the new year, let the notes of Tekiah catch our attention, Shevarim alert us to the brokenness of others who have been injured, T’ruah express our remorse, and Tekiah Gedolah our purification. May our repentance be sincere and our atonement complete so that we can enter the new year whole and at peace.