The Face of A Gardener Yom Kippur 2015

Butchart.gardensA Yom Kippur confession: as many of the readings in our new Machzor demonstrate, I don’t believe life-changing wisdom is limited to Jewish sources.
As the ancient rabbis declared, Torah was given to the Jewish people but wisdom was given to all people. (Midrash Lamentations Rabbah 2:13)
I am not just speaking about Shakespeare or various modern poets.
I am personally enamored with the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, whose writings inspired Tom Wolfe’s novel, A Man in Full.

I also can’t seem to let go of Dante’s the Divine Comedy, even if I have never read the whole thing, and none of it in the original. And I’m not alone.
One might think that a fourteenth-century allegorical poem on sin and redemption, written in a medieval Italian vernacular, would have been turned over, long ago, to the scholars in the back carrels. But no. There have been almost a hundred English-language translations, and not just by scholars but also by prominent poets. Clive James has given us the newest translation:

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out…it is hard to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
Merely to think of it renews the fear.

Haven’t we all been there? We have all suffered through dark nights of the soul.
Or what about the feeling of despair when seeing the gates of hell?

From now on, every day feels like your last
Forever. Let that be your greatest fear.
Your future now is to regret the past.
Forget your hopes. They were what brought you here.

On this night of Kol Nidre a little of that despair feels natural. We are here to confront our darkest selves. We all know how large the gap is between who we are and who we should strive to be.

And yet, there is a difference between a gap and an abyss. We are not here to be plunged into terror. As you might know, the ultimate message of The Divine Comedy is one of love. God’s love saves us. But Jewish theology is not so different. We, too, are well aware that it is Divine love and compassion that enables us to live with hope. Our list of sins tonight is long but the overwhelming emotion of tonight should be relief and hope, not despair.

How does this message get conveyed by the machzor? Consider this very Yom Kippur evening service. During the Selichot, or Forgiveness, section we included a refrain showing the gap between our shortcomings and God’s benevolence.

We are insolent –
But You are compassionate and gracious.
We are stubborn and stiff-necked –
But You are slow to anger.
We persist in doing wrong —
But You are the essence of mercy.

We then ponder what might happen if we could see God’s face – not as God actually is (even Moses could not see that) but within our own hearts.

It is here that we feature an original poem, one of many compositions in the machzor by Rabbi Sheldon Marder. This poem introduces a new image, that of a garden and its loving Gardener. Like a garden, we are potentially in a state of growth, but requiring nurture lest we fill with weeds, forget how to blossom, or wither and die.

As the poem progresses, however, its emphasis is not just on God. We need God’s care, but equally, we need to be tender toward each other as well as toward ourselves. Here is the poem:
If I could see God’s face within my heart…
I’d see the face of a Gardener –
Compassionate to weed and flower alike, patiently pruning, graciously planting,
Loving the endless hours of tending and nurturing the earth — seeds, roots, all that grows;
And true to the essence of the gardener’s work:
Forgiving the fallen branches, the withered petals, the cracked stones, the broken stems.

I’d see the human face in a thousand acts of mercy –
The one who gives bread to the hungry and shelters the lost, who hears the voice of grief and makes room for the stranger;
Who brings relief to the blind, the bent, the unjustly imprisoned; and is true to the essence of holy work:
Defying evil, healing brokenness, easing pain; and, in the end, forgiving ourselves as God forgives us.
The movement from petitioning God for kindness to “forgiving ourselves as God forgives us” is intentional. Yes, an honest assessment and recognition of our moral failings must occur; but there should also be compassion and understanding for our imperfections.

Worshipers used to the more traditional Yom Kippur focus on sin alone may find it jarring to find this balance between sin on one hand and forgiveness on the other.
We are not the first, however, to recognize the fullness of human nature and the need to appreciate the redeemable that is in us. As a model for our approach, we can look, in part, to Rav Nachman of Breslov, who wrote:

Always look for the good in yourself.
And remember: Joy is not incidental to your spiritual quest: it is vital.
For so it is written (Isaiah 55:12): “You will go out through joy and be led forth in peace.” Focus on the good in yourself; take joy in what is good, and you will be led forth from inner darkness.

Rav Nachman captures not just a balanced view on our moral frailty and goodness. He actually privileges the compassionate side of God. We are chastened by guilt but vouchsafed by a loving God whose very insistence on divine compassion leads us toward showing our own compassion – to others and to ourselves.

Some of us may recall the old Rav Nachman parable: One year, in some mythical kingdom far away, the entire stock of grain became poisoned. Anyone who ate it would become insane. Grain had been stored from years past, but only a small amount. The king fell into a quandary. Should people eat and become crazy? Or starve to death? Finally the king decided to feed the people the contaminated grain. But he reserved a little of the unpoisoned grain for a trusted advisor, the king said, so someone will know the rest of us are crazy.

That mythical kingdom turns out to be not so far away after all. It could very well be ourselves. With their emphasis on mercy and gentleness, their awareness of human brokenness, their affirmation of vulnerability, and their ethic of forgiveness, our prayers tonight are analogous to that unpoisoned grain.

While everyone else seems to be living insane lives, filled with unhealthy competition, bruised egos, skewed values, and inappropriate feelings of shame, it is surely the task of religion in our time to preserve for our planet a vision of compassion and a visage of what God who personifies it would have us do.

With its deep focus on sin and punishment, the traditional machzor, is akin to the poisoned grain. On the day when we starve for repentance, we do indeed require reminders of our sins and the regrets that such awareness ought to occasion. But too much of that poisons us; we become overly soured on who we, personally, are — as on human nature itself. We grow insane with a jaundiced view of humanity at large and ourselves as part and parcel of it. The antidote to all of this is mercy.

The Days of Awe inevitably leave their mark on how we see the human condition. We celebrate God’s mercy not just for what this says about God, but for what it implies about us, God’s creatures. At our best, we too are compassionate, gentle and good. We should avoid the inevitable madness that too much self-incrimination evokes.
Yes, we remain responsible for our actions; there are consequences for wrongdoing, and even the best of us approaches the High Holy Days knowing we are guilty as much as we are good. Yom Kippur in no way absolves us of responsibility for our actions.

But after centuries of overemphasizing guilt, it is time to balance the picture. Our relationship with God, when healthy, is not about castigation and guilt alone. It is about love and support. It is about holding ourselves responsible, but never giving up on ourselves as being able to reach the moral heights that God intends. It is about the garden reaching for the sun and the Gardener who cares about our doing so.

One of my favorite songs is by the Irish composer, Loreena McKennett; it is called “Dante’s Prayer”. In concert prior to her singing this song, she once related to the listening audience what inspired her to write it. A few years ago she was riding on a trans – Siberian train and reading The Divine Comedy. She recounted that since there was no dining car on the train, it would stop at various towns along the way and the riders were given exactly 20 minutes to leave the train. During that time they could buy food from the locals who lived in the town and would come to the train to greet and sell to the passengers. This would have happened perhaps once or twice throughout the day.

There was an attendant on the train, a woman, who would come around and seem very grumpy and rather miserable in general. At first, Loreena simply dismissed her demeanor as one of culture. One time, after Loreena had re-boarded the train after buying some food from locals, the woman came by. Loreena stopped her and gave her some of the food that she had bought, simply as an act of kindness. The woman responded with a surprised smile and a countenance that reminded Loreena about the story that she was reading in the Divine Comedy.

In that moment, she discovered her muse for the song and thought that she would never forget the look of gratitude on the attendant’s face, being sure that no one else had ever taken the time to consider the woman as she travelled back and forth, day after day, year after year through the dark harshness of Siberia. Loreena hoped that on some of those dark moments, the woman would remember her and perhaps return the smile to her face. And so the song was born.

I would say that that woman on the train was not only responding to Loreena’s face but to the face of a gardener, to the face of God. And the best part is we are all gardeners. We are all the face of God, if we indeed choose this path.

My friends, before us beckons a New Year, a new beginning.
May we greet it with a thousand acts of mercy.
May we be the one who gives bread to the hungry and shelters the lost, who hears the voice of grief and makes room for the stranger;
Who brings relief to the blind, the bent, the unjustly imprisoned; and is true to the essence of holy work: Defying evil, healing brokenness, easing pain; and, in the end, forgiving ourselves as God forgives us.

On this dark night, may our fragile but hopeful hearts know the brightness of inner light and the blessing of never-ending love. Amen.

When the dark wood fell before me
And all the paths were overgrown
When the priests of pride say there is no other way
I tilled the sorrows of stone

I did not believe because I could not see
Though you came to me in the night
When the dawn seemed forever lost
You showed me your love in the light of the stars

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me

Then the mountain rose before me
By the deep well of desire
From the fountain of forgiveness
Beyond the ice and fire

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me

Though we share this humble path, alone
How fragile is the heart
Oh give these clay feet wings to fly
To touch the face of the stars

Breathe life into this feeble heart
Lift this mortal veil of fear
Take these crumbled hopes, etched with tears
We’ll rise above these earthly cares

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
Please remember me

Rosh Hashanah Morning 2015 5776 Keep the Conversation Going



A story: There once lived a king much beloved by his subjects. He ruled a little kingdom tucked away in a corner of Europe.

One day an army came and overran the castle, making off with half the treasury. The king decided he had to increase taxes to make up for his losses, and called in one of his wise courtiers to ask how to tell the people the news without inciting a revolt.

The wise courtier suggested the king explain the theft as a tragedy for the entire kingdom and appeal to their spirit of sacrifice and support for the kingdom. The king did exactly that, and the people responded. Actually, the king had to do it twice, after a second invasion took more of the treasury. But apart from some grumbling, the people responded in heroic fashion.

But then the neighboring army raided the kingdom a third time, and this time they took all the king’s food and all the queen’s jewels. “What can I do this time?” the king cried.

The wise courtier hesitated and then said, “I think it’s time for your highness to put the water back in the moat.”

This is a prime example of someone speaking truth to power.  Now, “speaking truth to power” has become a popular way to describe taking a stand, even when the people speaking truth to power are powerful themselves.


The Torah reading this morning is the epitome of speaking truth to power.  Abraham actually calls out God!  Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do Justly?

The usual understanding of this appeal is that Abraham teaches God about social justice.

However, there is another possible way to read the story.  Even now it is God who teaches Abraham: After all, God invites Abraham into the conversation.  God decides to bring Abraham along so he can weigh in on God’s plan.

Think about it: God is comfortable enough to invite honest feedback.  God invites Abraham into the conversation.

Once a few summers ago I was riding my bike outside of Aspen, Colorado and I befriended another rider.  He told me he was in Aspen to teach about Game Theory at the Aspen Ideas Festival.  Short of breath but curious, I asked him for a one sentence description of Game Theory, as in “What’s the point of Game Theory?”  He answered: To Keep the Game Going.

Here is my modification of his answer: When it comes to relationships, the point is to keep the conversation going.  When inviting Abraham into the conversation, God models doing just that.

Keeping the conversation going may sound easy.  It is not.  First of all, one has to realize that any conversation takes partnership.  This summer at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, our wonderful local Reform Jewish camp, I accompanied a group of middle schoolers on a field trip to Comedy Sportz, an improv competition center in Milwaukee.  One of the rules our coach told us about improv is when someone engages you in the sketch, you can’t say no.  Because then the sketch is over.  You have to keep the conversation going.

Comedy Sportz makes it into a competition.  Because like any “sport,” doing it well is not easy.

When it comes to families, the conversation seems at times impossible to keep open.  My mother used to pull a trick when losing a conversation with my sister.  If things got a bit difficult, she would play the Holocaust card.  “I was in the Holocaust” she would say and boy did that make my sister mad.  I once told my sister that she shouldn’t be mad so much as just understand that this was our mom’s way of saying, “The conversation is over.”  After all, in the realm of rhetoric, how does one trump the Holocaust?

With all due respect to my wonderful mom, I believe that, whenever possible, families should keep the conversation going.  After all, extreme cases of not keeping the conversation going lead to years of silence and regret, and sometimes a total breakdown of relationships.

In his book I Never Forget a Meal, actor Michael Tucker tells of an incident in his family that forever changed the way he looks at cooking and hospitality. When he was young, his extended family gathered for Passover. His mother and sisters, who worked very hard on preparing holiday meals, also tended to be emotional.

At this particular Passover, which took place at his uncle’s house, an argument broke out between his mother and his uncle over whether the Seder liturgy should be read in Hebrew or English. The tensions rose ever higher. Some people sought to defuse it with humor, to no avail. His mother left the table. His uncle, too, left in anger — getting into his car and driving away from his own house.

Tucker’s mother ran outside, into the night. While the men searched for her, the aunts wrapped up the uneaten food. The children sat there in awkward silence: scared for their mother, but also embarrassed by her “crazy” behavior.

From that day on, the family disintegrated. Never again was there a happy holiday meal involving the extended family.

Tucker explains in his book that he now understands why he has a passion for cooking. He is trying to finish that meal, once and for all. It is “to finish that meal with grace and calm and convivial family conversation, with laughter and warmth,” he writes. “Mostly, I think about warmth; so that I can melt away the cold of that uneaten dinner.”

Maybe we too had an uncomfortable seder, or an argument about carving the turkey on Thanksgiving before uncle so-and-so had arrived.  There are always reasons for ending the conversation.  But are they worth the damage that ensues?

In addition to families, Temple families, too, can suffer from a breakdown in conversation.

Now, I know that Temple Sholom wants to be like a family, which means sometimes bad family dynamics is mixed in with the good.  And often the bad behavior leads to a breakdown in relationship and the end of conversation.

Ask yourself: Does this look like congregational behavior sometimes?

  1. People doing spiteful things — giving the silent treatment, doing things to irritate, ignoring someone, and when conversations are initiated, omitting routine courtesies.
  2. Making excuses — playing the pity card, blaming others, claiming their feelings are hurt (any excuse to avoid accepting blame).
  3. Selfishness — disregard [for] others’ feelings and needs, placing desires first.
  4. Twisting the truth — manipulating truths of an argument by leaving facts out (i.e, telling only part of the story to make others look guilty).
  5. Hypersensitive — throwing a temper tantrum, showing anger, insulting, over-reacting to trivial matters.

Such tactics may feel good in the moment but they infantilize others and in the end do the same to ourselves.

They are the opposite of keeping the conversation going. 

I ask all of us who care about this sacred community: Are we doing enough to invite in everyone to our community, into our conversations?  Or, if we are honest, does our behavior betray pushing others away?

A story: During the Second World War a platoon of American soldiers were fighting their way through a French village. When the battle had ended and the GIs began checking to see if everyone had survived the fight, they found one of their comrades had been killed during the battle.

Because of the respect and love these men had for each other, the surviving members of the platoon carried their friend through the village to the local church. They knocked on the door of the church. A priest answered the door and asked them how he could help them. They requested permission to bury their friend in the church cemetery.

The priest asked if their comrade was a Roman Catholic. Their answer was “No.” He was not of that particular church. “I’m sorry,” the priest said, “I cannot give permission for you to bury your friend. The cemetery is for Roman Catholics only.”

The men weren’t sure what to do, so they buried their friend just outside the wall of the cemetery. When they had finished they left the area disappointed but pleased that they were able to care for their friend.

The next day, as they were preparing to move out, the members of that platoon went back to the church cemetery to pay their last respects to their friend. When they reached the church and the cemetery they could not find the grave where they had placed their friend. They noted the landmarks around the church and were certain that they were in the right place. But there was no grave to be found. Finally, in frustration they went back to the church and knocked on the door, hoping to speak with the priest.

When the priest they had spoken to the day before came to the door, they asked him if he remembered them from the previous day. He said that he did. They asked him about what had happened to the grave of their friend. The priest answered, “After you left, having buried your friend, I was so ashamed of how I had treated you that I spent the rest of the day and night moving the wall of the cemetery to let your friend in.”

A question: what walls might we move, what behaviors might we change, to become more welcoming of each other?  To keep the conversation going?

Conversations should also keep continuing in the realm of politics.  I know they say don’t bring up politics and religion but sometimes these matters are too important to ignore.  Take Israel for example.

I don’t believe non-Israelis have the right to criticize the Israeli government in the same way as Israeli citizens, but that doesn’t mean we keep a resentful silence.  Israeli diplomat Tal Becker counsels for us non-Israelis a middle of the road approach: Jewish criticism of Israel is best modeled as Mother in Law to Mother in Law: Out of a great stake in the outcome we still hold our tongues in certain situations.

Then there is the Iran deal.  Talk about keeping the conversation going.  If only there were more conversation and less shouting.  As American Jewish Committee leader David Harris has pointed out recently,

 The Iran deal is perhaps the most consequential foreign policy issue in a generation. Yet the debate over it has too often fallen short of what’s needed.

 Rather than focus on possible strengths and shortcomings, some have resorted to sweeping generalizations, partisan attacks, personal insults, and hysterical hyperbole. None of this advances the discussion.

What a sad summer it has been!  In the name of stopping the deal, there have been calls for violence against American officials; some have accused President Obama of sending Jews “to the ovens”; some have claimed that supporters of the agreement will have the blood of “hundreds of millions” on their hands.

At the same time, we have had the rhetoric of some of the deal’s supporters, who accuse opponents of “warmongering,” “dual loyalty,” using the power of the purse, and willfully repeating the mistake of Iraq.

This toxic, misplaced language on either side certainly doesn’t bode well for engaging in genuine conversation.

 There are people here today on both sides of the issue.  I understand that.  I also believe all of us care about a secure Israel.  I hope and pray that we will all try to be civil and responsible in our conversations over this critical issue.  And that Israel – over all – will be protected.  But let’s allow the conversations to continue.

The same is true when confronting our global refugee crisis.  Writing today in the Forward, J. J. Goldberg (no relation) could have been speaking about my sister and mom’s curtailed arguments when he observes that raising “ images of the Holocaust may help draw attention to the crisis. But it also shuts down reasoned discourse, and thus drowns out urgent questions that need airing….[Furthermore]…in an atmosphere where every dinghy is the St. Louis, where refrigerator trucks smuggling migrants into Austria become boxcars transporting Jews to the gas chambers, where numbers thoughtlessly scrawled on refugees’ forearms in felt-tip pen by Czech police frantically trying to keep track of the human tidal wave are transformed into numbers tattooed on death-camp inmates — in such an atmosphere, there’s nothing left to discuss.”

Simply put: let’s keep the historical allusions at bay, knowing they more often provoke the end of discussion as opposed to enhancing the discussion.

Finally, besides conversations continuing between family, the congregation and those on different sides of the political aisle, we should remember one other vital conversation, as shown in the Torah passage today: our dialogue with God.

It is easy to be resentful of God.  One can even make the argument that at times we are too angry to continue the conversation.  But consider this story:

The chasidic rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk was once asked by a disciple how one should pray for forgiveness.  The teacher told the student to observe the behavior of a certain innkeeper before Yom Kippur.

The disciple took lodging at the inn and observed the proprietor for several days, but could see nothing relevant to his quest.

Then, on the night before Yom Kippur, he saw the innkeeper open two large ledgers.  From the first book he read off a list of all the sins he had committed throughout the past year.  When he was finished, he opened the second book and proceeded to recite all the bad things that had occurred to him during the past year.

When he had finished reading both books, he lifted his eyes to heaven and said “Dear God, it is true I have sinned against You.  But You have done many distressful things to me too.

“However, we are now beginning a new year.  Let us wipe the slate clean.  I will forgive You, and You forgive me.”

Why did the innkeeper initiate this conversation?  I think it is because the innkeeper realized that he needed God more than God needed him.

So what does it mean for us to be God’s sparring partner?

For one thing, it’s a reminder that questioning, pushing back, expressing doubt, and arguing are not out of bounds. We needn’t fear that we’ll offend God. God will have the final word, but we may receive insight, inspiration, understanding, blessing — or if not those things, at least the comfort that comes from having aired our grievances, even if the answer isn’t what we’d hoped for.

You may not know this but Hollywood has another Bible movie planned, this one about King David.  That old king certainly had many conversations with God.  And even though he made some terrible mistakes, and his own prophet Nathan spoke truth to power against him, David never stopped speaking to God.

That’s why we have the psalms.

I am sure you know many of these psalms, or conversations between David and God.

And you know that a common word in these psalms is Hallelujah, “praise God”.  The Canadian Jewish poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen labored over five years to write his version of this conversation.   Cohen’s “Hallelujah” expresses the struggles that many of us go through, perhaps wanting to praise God but feeling honestly that such praise is not easy to feel.

This Hallelujah is not about praise but rather the pain of failure and disappointment. It contains vaguely religious allusions—Hallelujah, King David, various references to brokenness: disappointment, personal failure, the loss of love, the loss of optimism.

As Leonard Cohen expresses so poignantly “love is not a victory march… it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…”

Leonard Cohen ends his “Hallelujah” with a most humble admission:

“I did my best, it wasn’t much.

I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.

I’ve told the truth. I haven’t come to fool you.

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

At the end, there may not be much to say, but the conversation does not end.  It continues.

And my prayer for all of us is this: with our friends and family, with our community, our country, with our family in Israel, and even with God, may our words never stop.  May our love never cease!  And may our hope for more understanding and acceptance lead us to a better future of everlasting peace.