Yom Kippur 5772
Finding our Crown Jewels
Yom Kippur 5772
Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria
B’nai Jeshurun Congregation
The story is told of a king who had the most precious diamond in the world. It was the largest, most exquisite and perfect jewel. The king kept the stone in a protective case in a special place right next to his royal throne. He would take the diamond out of its case and gaze on it often, wondering at its beauty. The king would say, “May our souls be as pure as this diamond, may our hearts be as big as this diamond, may our eyes sparkle as this diamond and may our actions be as perfect as this diamond.” One day, while admiring the stone, something startled him. The king dropped the jewel onto the ground, making a big thud as it bounced down the royal chamber. As he picked it up from the hard marble floor, the king noticed that the jewel now had a deep crack that ran the entire length of the stone. The king was immediately grief-stricken, filled with anguish and dismay at the terrible imperfection in the once-grand stone. He sent messengers out to find a craftsman who could repair it, but all simply responded that the diamond could never be restored to its pristine beauty. The king was inconsolable and continued looking for help.
Finally, after a very long search he found an old jeweler who said he could repair the jewel, but that the king would have to promise to give him free reign to fix the stone. With no other options, the king agreed. The old craftsman set up his workshop and worked continuously for many days. Finally he emerged with the protective box holding the cracked diamond. He handed the jewel and box to the king. No one was sure how the king would react and what would be the consequence for the old jeweler who worked to fix the stone. The king opened the box and held the diamond, carefully examining every facet. He gasped at the sight. There in the jewel, the old man had worked the lines of the crack into the pattern of an exquisite flower that appeared deep inside the precious stone. The line running down the diamond was no longer a crack. It was the stem of a beautifully etched rose. Everyone in the kingdom agreed, the jewel was now more precious and beautiful than ever.
Just as the king’s diamond which was shattered and broken was transformed into an even more precious jewel after its fall, each of us has the ability to achieve greatness this year no matter how difficult or successful the past year has been. We are all diamonds in the rough. None of us can be considered perfect. We have all made mistakes this past year, dropped the ball and fumbled.
At Yom Kippur, we take the time to recognize our failures and strengths in order to assess our lives. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “We all are failures; at least one day a year we should recognize it.” Yom Kippur teaches us that our flaws and imperfections, our failures and cracks may be the key to making our lives even better.
I was recently reminded of my own shortcomings. The day before Rosh HaShana, our president emailed me the qualifications that the synagogue desires for their perfect rabbi. And I read: “Our rabbi preaches exactly ten minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. She works from 1:00am until midnight, attends every minyan and is also the receptionist and maintenance staff. He makes $50 a week and gives $50 a week to tzedakah. She is 28 years old and has preached 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens. The perfect Rabbi smiles all the time with a straight face because she has a sense of humor that keeps him serious. He makes 38 calls daily to congregational families, homebound, nursing home and hospitals and is always in her office.” I certainly have my work cut out this year.
In Pirkei Avot, Teachings of the Sages, the rabbis advise us on how to approach each and every day of our lives:
לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.
Rabbi Tarfon teaches, “The day is short and the task is great. It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work; yet, you are not free to desist from it.” The classic commentators understand the Mishnah focuses on the need to begin study even though one may be disheartened by the enormous amount of learning necessary to become a scholar. The same can be said of our mission on the High Holidays to repent, to repair and change our ways, there is so much to do and the path seems difficult. Just as the broken diamond was repaired but the crack still remained an integral part of the stone, we are not required to become perfect. Only with hard work and true soul searching will we be able to see the beauty that is in our flaws.
There is a television commercial that advises us, “Stay thirsty my friends.” We are all thirsty today, afflicting ourselves as Biblically commanded to fast on Yom Kippur. Depriving ourselves of food and water, we shake up our insides and motivate ourselves to thirst for more in life. We are reminded that we hunger for spiritual and emotional growth, from Torah, family, synagogue and community in order to repair our lives and polish our jewels.
Legend tells us that the great Chasidic Rabbi Shneur Zalman was imprisoned in St. Petersburg during the 18th century. He was visited there by the chief of police who asked the rabbi about a biblical passage which had bothered him all his life. “Why did God, God who is all knowing, ask Adam: ‘Where are you Adam?’ God knew Adam was in the Garden of Eden!” Rabbi Zalman replied, "In every generation God calls out to each of us: ‘Where are you? What have you accomplished? How far have you gotten in this world? How far along are you?’” These are our questions, challenges and mission on Yom Kippur: Where are you? What have you accomplished? How far have you gotten in this world? How far along are you?
This week, our world has been shaken with the death of Apple’s co-founder, innovator and visionary Steve Jobs. By now, you may have seen or read the commencement speech he delivered at Stanford’s college graduation in 2005 in which he sums up his life lessons: the power of failure, the power of love, live each day as if it is your last and stay hungry. Like many of the most successful people in our world, Jobs had very humble beginnings. Given up by his young unwed biological mother, she wanted him to go to a family that would send her child to college to have a better life than her own. As fate would have it, he was adopted by parents that never graduated college themselves. His parents fulfilled their promise and Steve enrolled in college. After one semester, he did not see the value in school and dropped out.
A string of failures and seeming missteps led to his founding Apple out of his parents’ garage at the age of twenty, and later, the development of the Macintosh home computer. Even though he started the company, he was eventually fired from his leadership position at Apple and that again pushed him to work even harder. Years later, he returned to his visionary post bringing his drive and hard-fought lessons to design today’s most advanced technology. Only through his failure and his cracks, did he find success and leave a lasting, precious jewel for the world.
Steve Jobs spoke of the importance of feeling satisfaction and living like today is the last day of your life. His life teaches the possibility for personal innovation and transformation that is inside of us all. He ends his speech with the words “Stay hungry.” We must hunger for the future, a brighter future. To honor the past and learn from its experiences, to open new doors and improve our ways, we must always stay hungry and thirsty, my friends.
In the words of Rabbi Zalman, Where are you? What have you accomplished? How far have you gotten in this world? How far along are you? During the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, we read the entire book of Jonah. The prophet Jonah is ordered by God to travel to the wicked city of Nineveh with the warning that if they do not repent and change their ways, God will destroy them. Jonah in response to God’s call turns and runs the opposite direction. After being thrown overboard during a surging sea’s storm and swallowed by a large fish, Jonah finally heeds God’s call and brings God’s message to the city of Nineveh, “If you do not repent in forty days, God will destroy you.” As hard as it is, the entire city is moved to action. Nineveh’s king implores his people, “Mi Yodeah” who knows, if we all wholeheartedly repent, perhaps God will save us and grant us life? And God sees their sincerity to make amends, how they have improved their ways, and removes the evil decree, giving them life once again.
Why do we read this passage on Yom Kippur? The answer is quite simple that God’s mercy and compassion are open to all who do teshuvah and seek to improve their ways. We often feel like Jonah, overwhelmed by the responsibilities placed in our laps, personal, family, community commitments. In the end, it was impossible for Jonah to run away from the need to repair the cracks, no matter how difficult. The same is true for us, the hard work facing our frailties and saying sorry is the focus of our time here on Yom Kippur and all our days.
We believe in the ability to change even our most hardened habits and ways, with the help of our life lessons, myriad of experiences and Torah’s teachings. Whether it is anger, procrastination, wasting time playing Angry Birds, excessive pride, laziness or indifference, we can change these traits to become positive qualities like humility, calmness, energy, passion and compassion. Last night during Kol Nidre, we recited the prayer “Ki Hinei Kachomer- As clay in the hand of the potter, we can be formed, as iron in the hand of the blacksmith, we can be forged.”
This moving prayer emphasizes that we can change. It says that we are malleable and our lives can be improved with God’s help and our own. Yet, society shows us to be more like Jonah, fearful of the prospect of change. Last week’s New York Times discussed the diminishing value of empathy in our world. We no longer feel compassion for others because we have reached empathy-overload. David Brooks points out that even when we do feel empathy, having the feeling does not necessarily lead us to take action.
So, where are we? What have we accomplished? How far have we gotten in this world? How far along are we? Today, we say “G’mar Tov” which literally means may you have a good closing. We pray that we are transformed and enriched continually thirsting to improve our world while living life to its fullest. And we pray that when we are here no more, that in the end we are remembered for good and that our lives will be a crown jewel to guide others to better themselves.
The word G’mar in Aramaic means “to learn,” so G’mar Tov would be “Learn well and Finish well.” May we learn from those no longer with us who have imparted to us their great wisdom, their failures and successes. May the memories of our fathers and mothers, grandparents and siblings, spouses, children, friends and heroes, all those that we fondly remember at this Yizkor and every day serve as our motivation and teachers to repair our cracks and keep working on ourselves. May we stay thirsty and hungry to continually work to improve our ways and bring out our true inner beauty. As the king in our story would gaze on his diamond as say, “May our souls be as pure as this diamond, may our hearts be as big as this diamond, may our eyes sparkle as this diamond and may we be like the diamond and find our beauty in its cracks.”
G’mar Chatima Tova- May we all be sealed in the book of life for health, happiness, love, inspiration and joy.