Treasuring the Fragments
Erev Yom Kippur • Yom Kippur Eve
October 7, 2011 • 10 Tishrei 5772
Rabbi Bridget Wynne
Catherine, a Bay Area artist, had a point in her life during which she was literally broken. She had been in a serious car accident, and was hurt badly enough that had to take time out of her regular life to recover.
Catherine had always been drawn to watercolor painting, but didn’t actually paint very often. “I had a hard time figuring out what to paint, when to paint …” she says. The recovery from the car accident gave her a chance to take a long look at her life. It also reminded her that we never know how long we have to do what is truly important.
“Not many people can step away from their life and then step back,” Catherine explains.
Yet, those of us here this evening have that opportunity. Yom Kippur invites us to refrain from our ordinary activities for one full day, to take the time to reflect on the choices we will make in this new year.
Catherine’s step back from life led her to make significant changes. She decided to study watercolor intensively, while she cleaned houses to support herself. She also resolved to seek out the son she had put up for adoption 20 years ago.
Eventually Catherine’s painting career took off. She started winning prizes at exhibitions, and wrote a book on watercolor painting. Today, besides painting, and enjoying a relationship with her adult son, she offers classes in watercolor.
Catherine is an excellent teacher, not only because of her technique, but also because she draws on her years of self-doubt and avoidance to encourage her students to overcome their blocks, and to see what could be mistakes as opportunities for creativity.
How wonderful to be able to take experiences no one would want – years of avoiding one’s path in life, and a serious car accident – and be able to build on them to create a more meaningful future.
Catherine’s story reminds me of how the Jewish people began. Our spiritual ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and eventually fled their oppressors and crossed the sea to freedom. They wandered in the desert until they came to Mount Sinai, where their leader, Moses, told them he would climb the mountain and bring down God’s teachings about how to create a new and just society.
The people waited at the bottom of the mountain for weeks. When Moses didn’t return, they became so frightened that they had Moses’ brother build an idol they hoped would protect them. Just then, Moses came down the mountain, carrying stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. When he saw the people bowing to a Golden Calf, he was so furious that he hurled the tablets down, and they shattered at the foot of the mountain.
Moses had to climb Mount Sinai again to get a new set of tablets. This time the Israelites were able to wait, and they built a beautiful, portable Ark in which they carried the tablets in as they traveled through the desert.
I always wondered, though, what happened to that first set of tablets? Did our ancestors leave them in the desert, painful relics of their panic and Moses’ anger?
I’ll answer that question soon. First, let’s think about those words – our people’s “painful relics.” Couldn’t we apply that same description to parts of our own lives? The “if only’s” and “why didn’t I’s” that weigh us down, the debris of our mistakes, our actions driven by fear or anger, the tragedies that we have contributed to, and those that have befallen us.
Jewish tradition is based remembering the past. It teaches us to connect to our people’s history, to learn from ancient teachings. That principle works in our lives when we cherish the positive parts of our pasts, but what about the broken pieces? The shattered fragments of difficult childhoods, disappointing relationships, careers that didn’t blossom, illnesses, strained family bonds?
On this day, our tradition invites us to do as Catherine did – to stop, and to step out of our ordinary lives. In this way we can think deeply about the choices we will make in this new year.
Like Catherine, we probably cannot rid ourselves of the difficulties of our pasts, of the actions we wish we could take back. But, perhaps, like her, we can learn from them, even build on them.
This brings me back to my earlier question, about our ancestors there in the desert. What happened to that first set of tablets that Moses broke in anger?
The Israelites placed them in the beautiful, portable Ark they had made, along with the new, unbroken set of tablets.
Why did they save those pieces of stone? Why did they keep them in what they believed was the most holy place in the world? Perhaps they understood that we can best create our future when we learn from, and at times, even treasure, the shattered fragments of our pasts.
Remember - Catherine could never have become the teacher she is today without her years of fear and avoidance. Moses broke the tablets, and he learned to try harder to calm his anger, and to ask forgiveness when he did lose his temper. Our spiritual ancestors learned that Moses would return, and that they could trust him, and one another, rather than an idol.
The past is fixed. Yet, our understanding of it, the ways we might learn from it, are not.
I want to close now with that beautiful Hebrew word, “shalom.” Besides meaning peace, it also means “wholeness.”
The concept that underlies the word “shalom” is that when we gather and reflect on all the fragments of our lives, the joyful and the difficult, those we love to carry with us, and those we wish we could toss away in the desert, when we are able to learn from and build on the fullness of our experiences, we can create true wholeness.
It is in this spirit that I wish each of you a Yom Kippur, and also a New Year, of shalom – of peace, and of wholeness.