By Rabbi Shohama Wiener
Tonight is Kol Nidre, the eve of Yom Kippur, the most solemn service of our year. And yet, it can be the most hopeful, because it offers the possibility of a fresh start, all failings forgiven.
Let me tell you about a Japanese art form called kintsugi. (Thanks to Shir Yaakov Feit for bringing it to my attention.) Kintsugi is the art form of taking broken and jagged pieces of pottery from one vessel or from different vessels and gluing them together, not with ordinary glue, but with liquid gold that hardens. Imagine if you will, a bowl made of pieces with different colors and patterns from many different broken bowls, held together with shining but jagged strips of gold. This image speaks to me as a metaphor for us and for the Holy, for God. I imagine the gold to represent Sacred energy, God’s presence or our Highest Self, and the broken chards a symbol of the shattered pieces that comprise our lives—our successes and joys along with our failures and losses. Like the kintsugi bowl, we can be refashioned stronger and more beautiful by allowing God’s gold—God’s forgiveness and love to glue us together.
We have a Jewish teaching with a similar theme. Torah says that God gave Moses a set of stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments, but when Moses saw the Israelites making the Golden Calf his anger was aroused. He threw them down, and they shattered into pieces. Ancient rabbinic commentary adds that those pieces were gathered together and put into the Holy Ark along with the second set of Tablets that Moses received as a replacement. Wow. The brokenness of our ancestors was honored by being placed in the Ark with the most holy set of God’s commandments. The two sets of tablets together – brokenness and holiness – remained together. Such is life. We cannot completely have one without the other. Brokenness and wholeness- or holiness- are two sides of the same coin, inextricably connected. Forgiveness and the love that allows for forgiveness are the correctives.
Tonight, on Kol Nidre, we come together to acknowledge our history of brokenness as individuals and as a people. In our meditations and prayers we ask the Source of Forgiveness to give us strength to make amends with God and with each other so that we can be whole and holy. Unlike the refashioned pottery that is kintsugi, or the broken tablets that remain in our Holy Ark of old, we are continuously being broken and put together again. That process is called Tshuvah, return. After feeling ourselves distant from the most Holy, we seek to return to God, to our highest selves and to each other.
Last week we set intentions for the New Year. I don’t know about you, but in keeping a couple of those new intentions, I have inadvertently broken a couple of my old ones. Oy! Perfection still lies beyond my reach. As Reb David Daniel told us on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, we need to deal with the imperfection of spirituality. That is why we chant Kol Nidre, asking forgiveness for vows that we cannot keep. Not that we don’t want to. We do. But we are human and to be human is to live with imperfection.
The Jewish religion gives us ways to keep trying to improve, things we can doin order to better ourselves and our world, deeds we can do to raise our level of consciousness and balance out our failings. They are called mitzvot, literally translated as commandments, but usually referred to as good deeds.
Each one of them is a way to seek and connect to a Face of God, or a facet of divine energy, however you want to language it. All of them have specifically Jewish elements, and universal meanings. No one can keep all 613—and most of us can’t keep any of them 100%– but all of us can aim to do more. Even one more. Or part of one. It is said that on this Holy Day our deeds are counted and judged as positive or negative. For each mitzvah we do, the scales of judgment are tipped a little more in our favor. A bit of our failings are forgiven. We might imagine that each mitzvah we do is like a paint brush putting an extra stroke of liquid gold between the broken shards of our own kintsugi bowl. In that light, I’d like to share three of my favorite mitzvot with you, in the hopes that you will be interested in taking on these, or some other mitzvot in the Jewish toolbox. Then next year this time we all will have more gold in our kintsugi bowls and have contributed more to our own spiritual development as well as that of our community.
The first is hachanasat orchim, the welcoming of guests, the building blocks of community. When our forefather Abraham welcomed three strangers into his tent for a meal, he became our role model for hospitality. Here at our shul we try to do that by making newcomers feel welcome and part of our family, and offering food and drink at the end of services. Tonight, of course, is an exception because it is traditional to fast on Yom Kippur, but tomorrow night after our closing prayers you will be served well. How we do that in our personal lives is an open question—maybe it’s not literally inviting others for a meal, but reaching out in some way, even by phone or email. Know that when we extend ourselves to someone to let them know we care, and include them in our life, we are doing something that shows a face of God. Being friendly is a mitzvah.
A second mitzvah concerns treating our body as a sacred vessel, created in the image of the Divine. It is called shmirat haguf, guarding the body. This is a big issue for me, partly of my challenges around eating, but mostly because I don’t exercise as much as my doctor recommends. So understand that I’m preaching to myself, as well as talking to all of you. A large aspect of shmirat haguf is eating what is kosher for us; the Hebrew word kosher literally means “fit.” I’m doing better with that because my body lets me know when I eat something I shouldn’t. Our ancestors were given a set of guidelines on eating called Kashrut, important to me, and important to this shul. We add on to that the practice of offering those foods that are healthy for different people’s dietary needs. Some of us need a gluten-free or sugar-free or dairy-free or low salt alternatives. The mitzvah of shmirat haguf is important as a key way of incorporating godliness and seeking the Divine in our everyday lives.
Lastly, and most importantly, is the mitzvah of keeping Shabbat. Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of all Sabbaths. More of us come on this Sabbath than on any other Sabbath, to cleanse and reboot our souls. The rest of the year Shabbat is Friday eve to Saturday eve. This shul is here for you every Friday night, whether you come in times of joy or times of sadness. Shabbat is an opportunity to build spiritual family; what we can’t do for ourselves alone, we can do together. But Shabbat can be observed anywhere, especially the commandment to rest. Unlike the American ethic which seems to say that only being busy is worthwhile, Judaism claims that Shabbat menuchah, Shabbat rest, is part of God’s necessary plan for a good life. The Kiddush, the prayer over fruit of the vine, says that after the Creator finished creating God rested (va’yinafash) and brought soul consciousness to the world. The kind of rest that is good for the soul includes whatever deeds refresh our whole self, such as eating good food, engaging with good company, reading nourishing books, or walking in beautiful places.
Perhaps most important of all is that Shabbat is an opportunity to let go of weekday worries and tasks. This, for me, is the hardest part. It is a challenge, even after all these years, to trust that letting go of emotional burdens on Shabbat will lead to good results. “Let go and let God” is not just a popular slogan but a core element of Shabbat practice. When I can do that I come out of Shabbat feeling refreshed and renewed, with energy to get back into the business and concerns I put into God’s hands for the Sabbath.
These mitzvot–welcoming guests, caring well for our bodies, and making Shabbat meaningful- are just examples of how Jewish practices when done with spiritual intention can lead to wholeness and holiness. Spiritual intention- kavannah in Hebrew—is what makes all our good deeds like the gold in the Kintsugi bowl. On this Sabbath of all Sabbaths may we acknowledge our brokenness and open to forgiveness and love. May we set intentions for the coming year that we can succeed in keeping, using mitzvot to keep us on track as individuals and as a community. Then will our year be a Shanah Tovah, a year imbued with goodness. May it be so.