Washing Away the Layers

September 13, 2013
Washing Away the Layers

Rabbi Sally Finestone is the denominational counselor to Jewish students at Harvard Divinity School and Rabbi and education director at Congregation Or Atid in Wayland, Massachusetts. Below is a sermon for the evening of Kol Nidrei, which marks the beginning of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

This evening, as many of you entered our synagogue, you were greeted not only by our friendly ushers, but by two new works of art that now grace our walls.

I hope you took the time to really look at each work. They are each beautiful, but so different: one concrete and one abstract; one full of specific images and one where the images are left for our mind's eye to find.

Both are based on biblical texts, calling upon the familiar symbols of the dove, the olive tree, the pillar of cloud, and the pillar of fire. Yet, they express these symbols so differently, so uniquely, and oh so beautifully—for this is what great art does.

Looking at these works of art, and having the pleasure of passing them many times each day, I am reminded of a story I heard once—a story about art. This story doesn't take place here, or in Israel, or in Europe. No, this story takes place somewhere we do not usually associate with art. This story occurs in Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan National Gallery of Art is located on a small, quiet street in Kabul. At one time, it held some of the most beautiful treasures of the ancient world, as well as paintings by well-known artists from every century and country.

Our story takes place there, and it is one first told by an idealistic reporter from the United States who went to Afghanistan in search of art and artists. It was not an easy search.

Once upon a time, Afghanistan was filled with musicians, dancers, metalworkers and silversmiths, weavers and sculptors, and, of course, painters, many of whom were carrying on centuries-old artistic traditions. But when the Taliban took control of the country years ago, most art and artistic activity was banned—condemned as anti-Islamic and blasphemous.

All visual works of art—those bearing depictions of faces and people and animals—were particularly singled out for destruction. We all recall that terrible day when those huge Buddha statues, thousands of years old, were blown apart.

The artists, the musicians, and the craftsmen all fled underground. Artistic activity came to a standstill, and individual artists began to disappear. Shops were closed, instruments were carefully hidden away, and museum doors were locked, seemingly forever.

But then the Taliban was driven out of power (and out of the capital), and the artists slowly began coming out of hiding. It was at this point that our idealistic reporter arrived.

After much searching, he was able to make contact with many of these artists. Through word-of-mouth, addresses whispered in his ear, and encoded messages written on papers carefully slipped into his hand, he was able to track down these once-hidden musicians, dancers, and artists and to interview them. During one of the interviews, he was told to go to the National Gallery of Art and to see the curator of the museum.

He arrived at the museum not knowing what to expect. He knew that many of the treasures once housed at the museum had been looted, but he also knew that many wonderful paintings were still rumored to be there. But as he walked among the rooms of the museum, he could not hide his disappointment, as wall after wall held nothing but bland watercolor landscapes.

And that's when he saw him.

There, at the end of a long corridor, was the curator standing on a ladder, slowly and carefully washing one of those landscapes with water and an old cloth. As the reporter drew closer, he noticed that faces of people and animals begun to show, and soon a magnificent painting with all of its colors and figures in all of its original beauty reemerged.

The curator greeted the reporter warmly. He then moved the ladder to the next painting, and, once again, dipped an old cloth into the bucket and began removing the watercolor paint and washing off the bland colors that he himself had painted when the Taliban first came to power.

Out of concern for the art, and perhaps out of fear for his life, the curator had quickly gone through the museum and painted over faces and animals, masking anything that the Taliban might deem blasphemous. He painted over everything, disguising all the art as landscapes. But on that night, with joy on his tired face, he was happily destroying his own work.

What a wonderful story, and it even has a happy ending. For today, one can go to the National Gallery and see all the original paintings, now beautifully restored, all saved by this creative and brave curator.

But this tale of art hidden and art saved is more than just a story; it is a metaphor—a beautiful metaphor about our lives and about the purpose of this evening, of this Day of Atonement.

You see, we are the paintings. We are beautiful, magnificent creations, made in the image of God. And even though we are all made by the same Creator, and carry that Creator's spark within us, each of us is somehow unique and different—just like paintings in a museum.

We each have our own particular beauty—not the beauty perceived by the eyes, but the beauty perceived by the heart. We each have so much potential to be good and to do good in this world.

We each have so much ability to learn, to grow, to continually change for the better. We each have so much capacity for love, for kindness, and for justice. When we hold true to who we really are, when we treat others according to our highest of ideals, when our actions and words reflect the Divine spark within and our true potential, we are magnificent and beautiful to behold.

But then life happens. We are mistreated by others, or neglected by those we love. We are caught in situations that are unfair and unjust. We are blindsided by unexpected tragedy. Sometimes, we make the difficulties of life even worse by our own actions, and by the bad choices and decisions we make. And with each struggle, with each hurt, with each disappointment, we cover up our true, magnificent selves.

We do not need paint to do this; we do not need watercolors to hide our true image. No, we use the colors of anger, of biting humor, of defensiveness and resentment. We cover ourselves with sorrow, with regret, with despair.

Sometimes, it is the busy, hectic nature of our modern life that covers who we really are and that masks our true colors. Things we used to love to do, activities that used to give us so much joy, have been swamped and covered up by the long hours of work, the carpools, the homework, the demands of caring for our children, and the demands of caring for our parents.

The bike sits in the basement. The piano sits untouched. The writing pad sits on the shelf. When someone looks at our life, who we once were and what we once did cannot be seen at all.

Life just seems to pile it on, layer after layer, until we begin to forget what we truly look like.

Like the paintings in the museum, we need to wash away the layers of hurt, sorrow, and anger that the years have given us. We need to wipe off the layers caused by our hectic schedules and our too-busy days. We need to wash away the watercolors of life that cover who we truly are and who we truly can be.

But how? How will we find a way to have our own true colors, our own magnificence reemerge? Who will be our curator, that brave and creative soul with his bucket of water and an old cloth, willing and able to wash away all of our layers?

Our tradition tells us that our curator is, of course, God. How many places does our mahzor, our prayer book, tell us that we shall be cleansed before God, that our sins and wrongdoing will be washed away if our prayers and our repentance are sincere?

Therefore, during our prayers tonight and tomorrow, let us ask God to send us the strength we need to heal from old wounds. Let us ask God to send us the courage we need to forgive others and the compassion we need to forgive ourselves. Let us ask God to send us the wisdom we need to let go of things we cannot change.

During our prayers, let us reconnect with that Divine spark within each one of us, and ask God for help as we wash away the bitterness, the sorrow, and the anger, and begin once again to see our true selves.

But we have another curator, and that curator is ourselves. During these days of reflection and of intense self-inspection, let us pledge to reconnect with some of the things that gave us happiness and to reengage with some of the long-buried aspects of ourselves that gave us joy.

We have that ability to examine our hectic, over-scheduled lives and to make some changes that can allow us to spend more time together with our families, our dear friends, and yes, with ourselves, doing the things we love.

Let us find the power within ourselves to make those pledges, as we wash away the craziness of life, and begin once again to see our own true colors.

And finally, we have a third curator: each other.

We can each pick up that metaphoric bucket of water and help wash away the layers that cover another. If we see another burdened by sorrow, we can comfort them and sustain them through their times of grief with our friendship.

If we see another burdened by anger and resentment, we can be a patient and listening ear, helping them let go of their frustration. If we see another burdened by too much to do, by too little time, we can offer a ride, a dinner, a night out.

Let us reach out to each other and be their curator as we wash away the layers imposed by life and begin once again to see each other's true beauty.

There is a beautiful Midrash that illustrates this last point, one that many of you know. A man dies, and when he arrives at the heavenly court, his sins are exactly equal to his good deeds.

Not knowing where this man should spent eternity, the heavenly court decides to let him see both heaven and hell and then choose himself between the two. An angel escorts him down to hell, where he sees a large table filled with delicious pots of food.

People are seated around the table, with their arms bound, clutching large spoons in their hands. They are able to reach the food, but the bindings prevent them from turning the spoon and feeding themselves. The people are miserable, frustrated, and of course, starving.

Shocked and appalled, the man asks the angel to quickly show him heaven. Here, too, he finds the same large table, with the same pots of food, and people bound to their chairs in the same way with the same long spoons. But in heaven, everyone is well fed, and happy.

"I don't understand," he asks the angel. "What is the difference between heaven and hell?' The angel replies, "In heaven, we learn how to feed each other."

Let us learn how to feed each other by helping one another. Let us learn how to feed ourselves by making the needed changes in our lives. And let us learn how to feed our souls with God's help, moving beyond the hurt and the pain and the sorrow.

Let us all be that curator in Afghanistan, washing away the layers imposed by life and allowing our true selves—our beautiful, magnificent selves—to emerge once more.

On this holiest of evenings, let our goal be to always see the beauty in art. May we see the beauty each time we walk into our synagogue. May we see the beauty each time we walk into a museum. May we see the beauty each time we look at each other. And may we see the beauty each time we look in a mirror, sensing that magnificent creation of God, just below the surface, waiting, waiting to be seen.

—by Rabbi Sally Finestone