Rabbi Goldberg’s Yom Kippur Sermon – The Face of A Gardener

A 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