Release: a sermon for Kol Nidre
The gates are closing: short words for Ne'ilah

Your life is your art: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning


I don't know how many of you are MASS MoCA fans, but many of you have probably seen the building of LeWitt wall paintings -- yes? It will be on view until 2033, so if you haven't seen it, you still have time.

My favorite floor is the middle floor. The ground floor features works in pencil and chalk; the top floor features works in psychedelic colors so vivid they almost hurt my eyes; but the middle floor features geometric works in colors that are bright but not painful. That's the floor where I spend the most time.

I've said for years that someday I should paint a LeWitt on a wall in my house. How difficult would it be? All one needs are dimensions and instructions. This summer it occurred to me: I could actually do it. I could make a LeWitt, and have something big, bold, vivid, and colorful to brighten my home through the winter.

Maybe it's because of timing: I began work on my faux LeWitt during Elul, as we began the ramp-up to the Days of Awe. But as I worked on the canvases, I couldn't help thinking about teshuvah, that word so often translated as "repentance" though it actually means "return." The work to which we dedicate ourselves today.

Teshuvah is a process of discernment. Who am I, who have I tried to be, where have I fallen short, what kind of course correction do I need, how can I do better next time? Painting, at least for an amateur like me, has a similar trajectory. I sketched on the canvas where I wanted the different colors to be. Some of the lines needed to be erased and drawn again. And then I looked at my brand-new box of paints and realized I would need to learn how to mix colors. That took trial and error, and often the result wasn't quite what I had imagined.

Just so in the work of teshuvah. We draw lines around what we want our behavior to be. Sometimes the lines aren't in the right place and need to be re-drawn. Sometimes they need to be drawn more firmly, because we lose track of where they are. Sometimes we accidentally paint over the lines, and then have to let the paint dry and go back over it with white paint to try to obscure the brush strokes -- though it's unlikely that we ourselves will forget our missteps, even if we're able to obscure them from everyone else's view.

In teshuvah, as in painting, it behooves us to take the work seriously. If it's worth doing, it's worth at least trying to do well. And... it also behooves us not to take ourselves too seriously. Not to hold ourselves up to an impossible standard and then curse ourselves when we inevitably fall short. Newsflash: I'm a rabbi and a poet, not a modern artist. My painted stripes aren't as perfect as LeWitt's. And I'm a human being, not a bodhisattva or an angel, which means that I struggle to find the right balance of metaphysical "colors", too -- the right balance of lovingkindness and boundaries, gentleness and firmness, with others and with myself.

Teshuvah isn't work we get to do once and then be done with. It's ongoing. That may not be what you want to hear on Yom Kippur -- you may be hoping that when today is over, you'll emerge feeling that your inner work is done! And I hope that you do feel that way, at least a little bit. But I hope you don't feel that way altogether, because I don't think our inner work is ever "done."

Yesterday's canvas is already painted. We can't un-paint it. But tomorrow's canvas awaits. What colors will we mix, what patterns or images will we depict, based on what we learn about ourselves today?

We can't un-paint yesterday, but if we decide we regret yesterday's painting, we might be able to paint over it. That's one understanding of what the name of today means: Kippur relates to the word כפר, which means "pitch," as in the sticky black stuff that Noah was instructed to paint all over the ark to seal it from the waters. Today we have an opportunity to repaint ourselves inside and out, so that we can emerge into the rest of the new year with the old year's mistakes covered-over as though they had never been.

Of course, the old year's mistakes did happen. The places where each of us missed the mark in our relationships with ourselves, with each other, with the community, with the tradition, with our Source -- all of those were real. But today offers the promise that if we examine our mis-steps and truly commit to trying to do better in the new year, God will cover over our mistakes like a painter obscuring the first version of a painting beneath something beautiful and new.

In teshuvah, as in painting, it behooves us not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In fact, I have come to think of perfectionism as the voice of the יצר הרע, the "evil inclination." Jewish tradition teaches that each of us is made with a יצר הטוב and a יצר הרע, a good inclination and an evil inclination. This isn't a flaw in our design or something to eradicate: on the contrary, it's essential to who we are.

The Talmud (Yoma 69b) holds that once upon a time the rabbis managed to imprison the yetzer ha-ra, and for the three days that it was imprisoned no eggs were laid throughout the land. There's some kind of essential connection between the yetzer ha-ra and creation, procreation, creativity.

The Hebrew ליצור -- the verb form of that word yetzer, which is usually translated as "impulse" -- ליצור means "to create." In broader terms ליצור means to make art; to create, to form, to mould, to generate. The creative impulse is core to who we are as human beings. When Torah says that we are made in the image and the likeness of the  Creator, that's what I believe it means: we too create.

Our lives are our art, and we are the artisans no less than God whom our liturgy names as the יוצר אור, the Creator of Light. The yetzer is the artistic impulse, and we all have it -- whether or not we self-identify as "artists" or "creatives." Maybe you create with paint. Maybe you create through cooking. Maybe you create through words. But all of us create through the ongoing performance art piece we call our lives.

My yetzer ha-ra, my "evil inclination," appears in the voice of perfectionism that tells me I won't be able to do something properly so I might as well not even try. "There isn't time to really daven today with full intention and heart -- skip it." Or "You're not a painter, why are you even trying to create art." Or "He's never going to forgive you, so don't waste your time trying to make amends."

I'm not Sol LeWitt. I'm not even one of the art majors who did the gruntwork of creating three floors of LeWitt artworks at MASS MoCA. But if I listened to my yetzer ha-ra I would never even have tried to make a painting, and that would have been a shame, because it turns out I really enjoy painting. And I love seeing my LeWitt on the wall. Even though it isn't perfect.

And it is better to take ten minutes for spiritual practice, even with imperfect focus, than to skip it altogether because I don't think I will be able to do it "well enough."

And it is better to go to the people with whom I need to make amends, and try to make amends, even if I don't have exactly the right words to say, and even if I can't make everything perfect. Because saying "I'll never be able to live up to my own expectations" is a cop-out: it's a way of giving myself permission not to even try. And that's not what Jewish spiritual practice demands.

I need my yetzer ha-ra to goad me on. I need my yetzer ha-ra to tell me that I could be doing more and better than I am -- just as I need my yetzer ha-tov to remind me to feel good about what I'm doing even when it's not perfection. When the two are in balance, they push and pull me into creating.

One of my favorite teachings about the creation of the universe holds that God created creation because God felt a lack. God felt an ache, an emptiness, a loneliness. So God brought creation into being in order to have something, in order to have someone, with which to be in relationship.

We too create from our own emptiness. We create what's missing in our world. What colors, what qualities, what creation does the world most need from you in the year to come? I venture to suggest that the world needs your tenderness, your compassion, your righteous indignation. Pick up your paintbrush. What kind of you do you want to create?

Our tradition teaches that in every moment the world is spoken into being. Every morning we wake and our souls are pure, no matter how we might think we shmutzed them up yesterday. Every Yom Kippur we do the internal work of reflection and realignment and we emerge with hearts that are clean and clear. All of this is a gift to us from God, from the Universe, from Beyond. Our responsibility, as receivers of these gifts, is to try.

We try to be the best human beings we can be, even though we know we will fail. We try to paint within the lines, and to mix the most beautiful colors we can imagine. And sometimes we screw up and have to do it over again, and sometimes the colors don't come out the way we imagined, and sometimes we hurt each other and have to apologize, and that's okay. In teshuvah, as in art, the only wrong way to make it is not to make it at all.

Your life is your art. Throw yourself into the creative process of making teshuvah. Return again to your own creative power. Together we can make the world bold and vivid, beautiful and kind. Kein yehi ratzon: may it be so.

 Images: at the top of the post, a Sol LeWitt hanging at MASS MoCA.

At the bottom of the post, my own LeWitt hanging in my living room. 

Cross-posted to my congregational blog.