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We Are Michaelangelo’s Unfinished Works – Yom Kippur

September 26, 2012

Most of you do not know this about me: I am a snob. This character flaw manifests itself in the waiting room of my dentist’s office. Arrayed before me in perfect horizontal and vertical rows on a large table are magazines whose titles peek out just over the covers of their competitors, all of them vying for my attention. The magazines, forty or fifty in number, are in such incredible symmetry that anyone who picks one up feels obligated to return it to the exact place from where it was taken.

What a variety of choices! Well, ‘Variety’ is one of the magazines on the table, but so too are Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Ladies Home Journal, ESPN, Elle, Car and Driver, Road and Track, Town and Country, Vanity Fair, GQ, S.I., and Forbes. You’ve only heard about a third of the list that line the table in perfect columns, and I guarantee you that among the magazines in the waiting room of almost every doctor and dentist, you will also find People, Us and In Touch.

With this cornucopia of literary riches at my fingertips, do I reach for Forbes? Without fail, I choose People magazine. I read articles about people in whom I have absolutely no interest. I pause over photos of actors and actresses I don’t follow. I read about relationships in turmoil or transition; about tirades on movie sets; about weight loss, material gains, rumors denied, and the purchases of palatial homes. I ask myself, “Rich beyond belief, are these people so petty?”

I remind myself that what I read might not be 100% accurate, or even 50% true. No matter. It carries the whiff of plausibility. I am none the wiser for having read the magazine, but I feel smugger and much better about myself. I return the magazine to the exact place that I found it: second column from the left, seven rows down, between Cosmo and Elle, hoping that if anyone sees me doing so, they don’t know me.

But I do, which is to say that I know who I am, and in the brighter light of day or the quiet time of night, I am sometimes forced to confront – or courageous enough to acknowledge – the rough edges of my undeveloped self. All of us would admit that within virtue there resides a shadow side, and that we exist between the poles of being better than we think, and not quite what we want to be.

To make my point, I ask that you travel with me for a moment to Florence, Italy. One of its world-renowned sites is the Academia, the first academy of drawing in Europe, founded in 1563, and it is where Michelangelo’s statue of the original David has resided since 1873. Carved from a block of Carrara marble, David established Michelangelo’s reputation as the leading sculptor of his day and for all time. Only 26 years old when he received the commission from the Office of the Works of the Duomo in 1501, he began carving the statue a month after he was awarded the contract. He worked on this massive, 17 foot high, Biblical hero for three years.

The first time that I saw David, it took my breath away, and so for an hour I walked slowly around it – or him, so personal was the sensation for me – marveling at the beautifully rendered, marble-muscled form of the youthful David at the moment before his battle with Goliath, or perhaps in the immediate aftermath of his victory over the giant.

Most tourists are so intent on arriving at David in the center of the Academia that they are almost oblivious to what fills the corridor that leads to the masterpiece. The hallway is lined with Michelangelo’s unfinished works, referred to as ‘The Slaves’: forms struggling to escape from the stone surrounding them. I think of those images as metaphors for our own unfinished state of being, for we are all in the process of ‘becoming.’

One of the main purposes of Yom Kippur is to acknowledge who we really are, absent the rationalizations and excuses. You know the litany of what we would rather not talk about: lying; cheating; gossip; sarcasm; stoking arguments by adding fuel to the fire; taking pleasure in someone else’s pain; envying friends for their success; not reporting income to the IRS; not being patient with our child or children; resenting an ill parent; smoking again; procrastinating…and on this long list, next to specific examples of what we have done wrong this past year, we have jotted down, “Do not do this again!” That note appears several times elsewhere on the page: “Do not do this again!” but we do.

Some of the most trying times in our lives occur when we do not recognize ourselves, so vast is the distance between our self-image and our deeds. We have all been down that slippery slope. Last year at this time, I spoke about my personal dismay and regret about how I abandoned my friend, Rabbi Jerry Winston, when he needed me most, and how I needed to take responsibility for what I had done and, more important, learn from it.

We all know the difference between sympathy and empathy, and we know that empathy is not enough because even if people weep for us it does not mean that they will do anything about what causes our pain. Empathy is easy, change is difficult, and that is what the High Holy Days are all about: how we might be better human beings.

This past May, I received a call from someone I did not know, asking if I would consider visiting a friend of his – I’ll refer to her as ‘Sarah’ for the sake of her anonymity – at Paul’s Run, a ‘Continuous Care Retirement Community’ on Bustleton Avenue. Sarah is 93 years old, virtually blind and very hard of hearing, but her mind is razor sharp and her memory is incredible. She is twice a widow, without children, and without family. She has no relatives. She is alone. She wanted to meet with a rabbi.

I met her for the first time in early June, and since then I have been with her every other week, late morning, in the company of her caregiver. When we first met, she said, “I have been independent for many years, and now I am dependent. I’m unhappy and scared.” She told me that she eats her meals alone in her apartment because when she would go downstairs to the dining room, the people with whom she was seated would not talk to her. She thinks it is because she reminds them of their greatest fears: being infirm to the degree that she is, and being as dependent as she is. So they don’t talk to her. People at other tables treated her the same way, and so ever since then, once a day, she goes downstairs to the dining room kitchen, picks up a paper bag in which her dinner has been placed, and brings it back to her little apartment where she eats alone.

She is a very proud person. She is clear about who she is, what she needs, and what she has lost. Since she cannot see and has difficulty hearing, I sit just two feet away from her, and I occasionally place my hand on her shoulder to assure her that I am next to her. From time to time she will say to me, in a very loud voice from just two feet away, “I cannot hear you rabbi, you’ll have to talk louder.” She will often ask, “Are you listening to me?”

I listen to her litany of complaints about what she has lost – almost all her sight, most of her hearing, and a great deal of her mobility – who she misses, what she needs, and how she is ignored. I hear this every time I visit her. She shouts because she cannot hear herself speak, and so her natural assertiveness becomes incessant and overpowering. She demands to know why I cannot change certain policies at Paul’s Run, or find her a better place to live elsewhere. My efforts to find answers or options that might be to her benefit – the odds of success are stacked against her because of her physical infirmities, limited income, and her desire to avoid assisted living – are of little help. She becomes more frustrated, particularly with me. Her questions are charges that become personal: “You don’t you know anyone who can help me? Don’t you care about me?” Her anger pours forth in bursts from two feet away, and I absorb it. In the brief pauses between her rapid-fire questions, I try to tell her with whom I have spoken on her behalf and what I have learned, but her anger does not abate. Four words into my sentences, I am cut off by her diatribes. Reasoning with her doesn’t help: she either cannot hear me, or chooses not to.

Suddenly, she asks me to say a prayer for her. The first time this happened was in the midst of her dressing me down, so I was thrown off-stride, completely unprepared for the shift in tone. Her request is accompanied by a weary sigh, a plaintive tone in her voice that signals she is done, beaten by everything that life has visited upon her. I say prayerful words – words from our tradition; words that I have been thinking about for such moments; words that I create on the spur of the moment – and as I say the words, I touch her shoulder to let her know that we are still connected, and that I am not leaving.

There are times that I feel like leaving. Sometimes I arrive thinking, “I’m good for maybe half an hour.” But as we talk, I realize that she has put me in touch with myself. She becomes the focus of my personal Ahl Chet: “For the sin that I have sinned against You by not being patient with others; for the sin that I have sinned against You by not taking time to listen; for the sin that I have sinned against you by not trying hard enough to help those in need.” Sarah does not know about any of this, but she reminds me about my sins of commission and omission.

Last night I spoke about how text can speak to us, and I used the prayer book as an example because there are words we read so often that we can say some of them in our sleep. I implored you to release from the text when that happens to explore whatever word or phrase tugs at your mind or hugs your heart – as if those words on the page are in neon letters – and to free yourself from awareness about time or wondering where the rest of us are in the worship experience. I said that I know you will eventually merge seamlessly back into the stream of the service because the melody of a prayer or song that you know so well – the V’ahavtah, the MiChamocha, the v’Shamru – will instantly ‘place’ you where we are when you are ready to join us again.

The beauty of familiar words is that you can also ask what words have greater meaning for you than others. In the V’ahavtah, is it the word “love” or the phrase “you shall teach them diligently to your children”? In the Kiddush, is it the words “it recalls the exodus from Egypt” or “You have given us Your holy Shabbat as an inheritance”? In the Rosh Hashanah Torah portion about the binding of Isaac, is it the phrase “Take your son, your precious one, whom you love” or is it “the two of them walked on together”? From this morning’s Torah portion, is it “You stand this day, all of you…to enter into the covenant” or is it “choose life”?

This afternoon, the Haftarah Portion is from the Book of Job. Job reminds us of our ‘badder selves’: he does not want any responsibility. Told by God to go to Nineveh to warn the people that their evil deeds threaten their own destruction, Jonah heads off in another direction to avoid the task. On a ship in the midst of a raging storm on the ocean, he descends below to sleep, to get away from it all, a pre-Ambien retreat into darkness. Thrown overboard, he is swallowed by a whale and spat out on dry ground. He bemoans his fate and is beside himself when a plant that provides shade in the blazing heat of the day suddenly withers, as does his spirit. God asks him, “Are you really that upset because the plant is no more?” and Jonah replies, “Yes, so much so that I want to die.” It is at that point that God says to him, “You are grieved about a plant that you did nothing to cultivate and that perished overnight; should I not care about a city in which a hundred thousand people live, even if you could not care less?” There is one phrase in the entire narrative that jumped off the page at me, and I recommend it to you as a wake-up call for this New Year. It occurs when the ship is being tossed back and forth in the ocean, like a little plastic boat in a bathtub filling too fast with water, and in the midst of the raging storm, Jonah goes into the hold of the vessel and falls asleep. The captain shouts at him, “How can you be sleeping so soundly?” The Hebrew verb has the literal meaning of “being overcome by sleep.” What a great question to motivate us throughout this new year: “How can you be sleeping so soundly?”

We toss and turn at night, or in the early hours of the morning, as we worry about things we need to do that have been left unattended: meetings that should be confirmed; calls that are waiting to be returned; final edits for a presentation later in the day; a ‘thank you’ note to be sent. What else disturbs our sleep? Is it a child who needs more of our attention? An elder who needs more of our love? Are we shaken out of our sleep by the sounds of strife in the world: the surge of violence; the slaughter in Syria; the impasse of the settlements in Israel; the plight of people here at home without healthcare; the tidal wave of corporate malfeasance. The tendency is to turn away from engagement with the world because the task of doing much of anything to change it for the better seems too daunting to even try. The reality is that every step we take can lead toward change. We can impact a life here and there for the better, and if one or two of us does so, and then three or four other people join us, in time we will accomplish much more together than we thought possible to do individually. This is not to minimize what an individual can do, but it really speaks to what the community can accomplish! It starts with the decision to do something: a small step that leads to large strides. One person inspires another, and together they join hands with other caring souls. It begins with one. It begins with you.

Martin Buber {1878-1965} – best known for his philosophy about the sanctity of dialogue – told a story about Rabbi Hayyim of Zans {1793-1876, Poland}. When he was young, his ambition was to preach to everyone in his country in order to get people to change their ways. But when he reached 30, and evil was still all around him, he thought that perhaps he had been too ambitious and therefore addressed his words to his region of the country. By age 40, he was no more successful than before, and he decided to limit his activities to his community. His community had not changed by the time he was 50. He decided to focus his attention on his family, but his family had grown and moved away, leaving him by himself. This made him realize that he should have begun with himself in the first place. For the rest of his life, he concentrated on improving himself.

That is how you make a difference: you begin with yourself. Then you reach out, and the tiny ripples of water you create that are called mitzvot expand to touch others: people – not the magazine – but people in need of our attention, devotion and love. We should not be sleeping soundly! There are many Sarahs out there, and you know them by other names, or have yet to meet them. They are in our neighborhoods, perhaps on our blocks, and they are in this country and beyond our borders. Gender does not matter, nor does race, religion, country of origin or ethnicity. You reach out, you volunteer time, you visit, you support through your largesse…you make a difference. Like Michelangelo’s unfinished works, we struggle to break free from whatever traps us in our inertia, and once free, we quickly discover that in giving blessings, we receive them as well.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin