Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5777, October 11, 2016

Shana Tova and G’mar Chatima Tova!  Sally and our family joins me in wishing each and every one of you a happy and healthy New Year.  We pray that this will be a year of health and peace for us and all Israel.  This is our chai year, our 18th year together.  As we look out among us, there are so many new faces, those whom we do not recognize.  I urge you to take a moment now and introduce yourself to someone near you whom you do not know and wish them a sweet new year.

Many of us have been to Italy or have seen Italian art in one of our great museums.  From antiquity on, the Italians, like the Greeks before them, created magnificent pieces of visual art.  Much of Italian art is religious, meaning Christian in nature, since it was commissioned by the Church.  It wasn’t until the Renaissance when art and religion became disentangled.  It was during this time that the leaders of Florence commissioned Michelangelo to complete his magnificent David, a seventeen foot high sculpture which the artist began in 1501 and completed in 1504.  The 16th century painter Giorgio Vasari wrote of David, “When all was finished, it cannot be denied that this work has carried off the palm from all other statues, modern or ancient, Greek or Latin; no other artwork is equal to it in any respect, with such just proportion, beauty and excellence did Michelangelo finish it.” 

When we look at David from a distance, the word that comes to our lips is “perfect.”  How could a mere human create something so divinely beautiful?  The truth is, however, that David is not perfect.  In fact, the sculpture is deeply flawed.  When one looks closely, he notices that David’s face is “pocked with holes which restorers had filled in, and that he was missing a small chip of stone from one of his lower eyelids, and that his right little toe had been lost multiple times and that a mentally ill person had taken a hammer to his left foot in 1991.  Although the David’s maladies were mostly patched up over the centuries, you could still see the scars.”[i]  David’s imperfections are even worse than cosmetic.  “The trouble is the David’s ankles. They are cracked.  Italians first discovered this weakness in the 19th century but it was not until two years ago that a team of Italian geoscientists published a report that stated if the David were to be tilted 15 degrees, his ankles would fail.  The seed of the problem, scientists tell us, is in the statue’s design”[ii]

Isn’t this the essence of the human predicament?  We are practically perfect when we are born, but as we get older the scars from physical illnesses and emotional hurts accumulate.  Our souls are pock marked with the residue of pain and trauma.  Our limbs are hampered by the detritus of time.  While from a distance the David seems whole, as we approach him we see his imperfections.  So it is with us.  On the surface, everything may seem just lovely, but as we engage in cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, we realize how much is broken, how many cracks there are that did not exist before.  The further we delve into the recesses of our psyches, we come to understand that wholeness and brokenness cannot be separated from one another.   “Only a sincere encounter with this brokenness will allow us to put ourselves back together again, more whole than before.”[iii]

Just think for a moment of the sounds of the shofar we heard on Rosh Hashanah.  The first is the unwavering sound of the Tekiah.  This represents wholeness.  The second is the three notes of the Shevarim which signifies vulnerability.  The third, the nine staccato notes of Teruah, remind us of our brokenness. [iv] The last of the notes, the Tikiah Gedolah, the one long blast of the horn, symbolizes that after the process of emotional dissembling and re-assembling is complete, we are more whole than before.  Brokenness may even allow us to become closer to God.

The psalmist wrote (34:19), “God is close to the broken hearted.”  Another psalm (51:19), tell us, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.”  The Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern, wrote, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”  “When we dismantle our armor and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, only then can we open ourselves to feel raw emotion, to call out for help, and to make ourselves available for transformation.”[v]

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman once wrote, “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete.”  Our holy task as human beings is to engage in tikun olam, the repair of this broken world.  To be human is to live among brokenness while participating in the sacred work of healing.  We must engage in fixing ourselves while simultaneously repairing the world around us.  Jews, even Jews who are hurting and sad, are not allowed the extravagance of sitting idly by while others are in pain.  When we act to change the world for the better, we make ourselves better as well.

Yom Kippur tells us that we have the power to alter even the most egregious of our behaviors.  The message of these High Holydays is that the past does not necessarily determine the future.  If we make a sincere effort to transform ourselves, God will respond. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God is willing to act in new ways in response to Israel’s new behavior.  The prophet calls for Israel to repent saying (18:11) “I am devising disaster for you and laying plans against you.  Turn back, each of you, from your wicked ways and actions.”  God has a plan, but God’s plan can change…the people’s repentance elicits a Divine change of heart.  Tomorrow afternoon we will read from the Book of Jonah.  Jonah called upon the king and the inhabitants of Nineveh to repent.  God saw they changed their ways and so God did not carry out what He had planned.  “Jeremiah and Jonah express a key principle of Biblical theology, that human response evokes Divine change…the God of the Bible profoundly respects human freedom and the dignity of God’s subjects.  Divine sovereignty decidedly does not entail determinism.  In the Bible, not only does God not determine the future, God does not even fully know it yet.  That is what genuine human freedom entails.”[vi]

Some of us come here tonight in despair.  We are physically and emotionally shattered.  We look at the world as being irreparably broken.  Even in the midst of our anguish, we are not allowed the luxury of hopelessness.  “The choices we make and the paths we take really can affect the future of our world.  To live with God, the prophets, tell us, is to live in a world in which the future always remains open.”[vii]

The David may be damaged but that does prevent us from admiring its magnificent beauty.  Like all of us, even the most flawless sculpture in the world is blemished.   We live in a world of brokenness.  Yet we should not despair, for our future is not determined…our future is not yet determined.

Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova.


[i] Sam Anderson, NY Times, August 21, 2016.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Sh’ma, June 2016.

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Rabbi Shai Held, Torah commentary, Shoftim, August 26, 2014.

[vii] Ibid

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