Temple Adat Elohim
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Oil Paintings

By Rabbi Ted Reiter, Yom Kippur 5768/2007
At the beginning of August the art world was shocked by the announcement of a newly discovered painting by Vincent Van Gough. This painting, probably created in the summer of 1889, has been on display for years, yet hidden in plain sight at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Oil painting is an interesting art form. Unlike other methods of paintings, oils can be worked and reworked for days and even weeks. Oil paints do not dry by evaporation but rather through oxidation – a much slower process. For this reason, an oil painting is not considered completely dry until it is 60-80 years old. The other interesting fact about oil painting is that often painters re-use canvases for new creations. And this is the answerto the riddle of the “hidden” Van Gough.
Through x-rays, curators discovered that beneath Van Gough’s “Ravine” lies a painting entitled “Wild Vegetation”. Scholars have long known of a pen and ink drawing of “Wild Vegetation” that Vincent sent to his brother Theo, but they never knew that it had actually been painted until modern science discovered it beneath the oils of “Ravine”. If we did not know of the common nature of this practice by other artists, we would write it off as “just one more crazy act by Vincent who cut off his ear”.
I have been trying to imagine what that must have been like for Van Gough -- having created what we would undoubtedly call a masterpiece today, he answered this inner call to repaint – making something utterly unique, telling a different story, taking a new course, creating. . .again.
It’s hard to know today why Vincent Van Gough decided to paint “Ravine” over “Wild Vegetation”. Perhaps it was simply the work of a madman. Or perhaps he knew something greater.
Tonight is Kol Nidre. We stand here in front of you wearing our white robes – blank canvases. White represents purity, helping us create a sacred space on this holy day. The white we wear today, however, takes on an additional meaning. Today we dress in white as we will at our burial.
Yes, Yom Kippur is a dress rehearsal for our own death. Thus, we abstain from all life affirming activities like eating and experiencing physical pleasures. We recite the vidui, the final confessional that is only uttered again upon our death bed. According to Jewish tradition, death and Yom Kippur both atone for our misdeeds.
I have had the experience, or perhaps the honor, over the years to be present at many death beds. Children, parents, grandparents, the parentless, the childless, the widow and the stranger. In the last days or hours of life they need neither food nor water. They need nothing to stimulate them nor provide entertainment. They may not even need much air to breathe. Some are scared and some are calm. They may have moved past what we understand as bodily pain or they may be numbed by an IV drip.
Invariably, they are in a different place from us. They have come to grips with a lifetime of anxieties. They have balanced the ledgers of their souls. They are coming to the end of their journey on earth, and they have no idea of what might lie ahead, but they now understand the meaning of their life. Was it wasted? Was it accomplished? At this point it matters very little as they know they cannot do it all over again. Clarity seems to be wasted as our lives come to an end. If only we had that same clarity while we had the strength to live. Our death bed will open our eyes. VYom Kippur is supposed to bring us to this same awakening. It is on this day that we come to grips with what we have done, with what we have said, with who we have become.
Today, as we stand before the ark, as we stand before the Torah scrolls, as we stand in front of God, we declare that we have done our best this year. We have flown and fallen. We have found happiness and heartache. We have performed mitzvot, we have missed the mark, and we have tried to make amends. Whatever should happen, we are ready, knowing that we have grown this year, but yearning to stretch even further if we are given a chance to be inscribed in the Book of Life for one more year. Eager to go back to our oil canvases to keep working on our selves, to apply new colors, new textures, new techniques – even to start anew over the pictures we have already created.
Is this the easy way to do things? No. It is much easier to say that we have at the age of 18, 30 or 80, finished the masterpieces of our lives. We have used all of our colors and all of our brushes. Some of us think that we have perfected ourselves, or we have run out of energy, creativity, ability or time. Our canvases are complete. But this is contrary both to Jewish teaching and to the natural order of the world. Just look out the window and we see that nature is never at rest.
When we moved into our home in Thousand Oaks two years ago we replanted much of the back yard. To cover the barren cinder block walls we planted morning glory. Morning glory is a tenacious plant. It grows and stretches and reaches for anything it can grasp. It is human-like in its ability to grab hold of trellises, gates and other plants. Once a week I have to go through our back yard re-directing this growth so that it does not overwhelm our banana trees or more delicate greenery. I have thought a few times about pulling it all out of our back yard. But each time I think that I have had enough of its growth, I am struck by the beauty of its green leaves, its purple and pink flowers, the humming birds it attracts, and its determination, as it winds its way through our back yard, always finding a new path to explore and a new way to reach for the sun.
This summer, in Corey’s home town of Galveston, TX, we waded through the warm, murky waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I mostly enjoyed just playing around in the waves, but Corey was constantly picking up shells with her toes. There was the usual array of broken halves of various shells, but every once in a while she would bring up a hermit crab. She found little bitty ones and fairly good sized crabs. A hermit crab borrows a home. It’s essentially a rental unit. The crab lives in a shell until it grows too big then goes looking for something with a bit more room. A bigger shell allows the crab to grow, but eventually it must go look for yet another shell. This goes on and on as the crab is continually searching for the right fit.
The morning glory plant is always reaching for the sun. The hermit crab is always searching for a new shell. What are we pursuing each day? What are we committing ourselves to if we are given just one more year? Three years ago Temple Adat Elohim took a courageous step in deciding that it was time to look inward. At the time, our dearly beloved Rabbi of over 20 years announced his upcoming departure. This was a huge shock to the community. For some, it was even akin to an imminent death. Some were paralyzed, not knowing what to do and having little drive to move forward. Our leaders, however, had the wherewithal to ask questions and to evaluate the work of art that had been created over a period of 37 years. And with the support of the community, the decision was made standing before the holy ark to start painting anew. Over the past two years we have begun to create a new masterpiece. We have started the process of reaching upward and we have searched for the right fit.
It has not been the easiest process. Some are not able to appreciate the new colors that we introduce. For some it has taken longer to acclimate to the new brush strokes. Some see no reason to reach at all -- comfortable in the shell that we outgrew over the decades.
But make no mistake. The beautiful purple and pink flowers of the morning glory are visible as we stretch upward and upward. We are now being recognized by leaders around the Reform Movement for our innovation and for our courage. People are visiting our synagogue like the humming birds and are discovering the sweetness that we offer. The clarity that we discovered just a few years ago has opened the door to further exploration and growth. We are now in the midst of Kadima’s work in laying the groundwork for our future. We are at the beginning of a process called Re-Imagine that will transform our educational program. We are moving forward with our Youth Leadership commission to engage our teens in a more meaningful way. We are creating a new masterpiece.
Organizational transformation is much like personal transformation. It, too, requires the courage to say, “We are not perfect.” To acknowledge our successes and strengths, but also to know that we can be more if given just one more year. Some communities, just like some people, wait for a catastrophe, but healthy ones engage in this practice on an ongoing basis.
In 1989, I returned to Tulane in New Orleans for my final year of college after having spent about eight months in Israel. Although I still had a few requirements for my major, I desperately wanted to try something completely different – and that turned out to be glass blowing. Glass blowing is an ancient art once expertly practiced by Jews throughout the Mediterranean. It is at once both extremely physical and delicate; it is strong and fragile; it is malleable and unforgiving.
This class changed my life -- mostly because I met Corey in this class. But I also learned a thing or two about taking chances. It is fairly easy to start working with glass -- learning how to attach a small molten dab to the punti or blow pipe. Then comes a lesson in shaping simple glass nuggets that we used to call tootsie rolls. Glass 101 – simple as can be.
Blowing a cup or vase is a different experience all together. It involves all of the basic techniques. But to go from blob to vessel requires that the glass is transferred from one rod to another. It must be reheated, molded, shaped, scraped, formed, balanced and very carefully placed into a kiln to cool down. Once it comes out, it then goes to a finishing room where it is polished, etched, cut and sometimes. . .dropped.
I was very proud of all of my creations and in fact still use some cups for various pencils and paperclips. But our professor would often not so gently encourage us to return our final product right back into the molten glass. Yes, we had worked hard on all of our pieces, sometimes hours and hours in front of hot flames and wet sanding belts. But in the end, what we learned along the way paved the road for our next project. They were starting points for new creations. They provided the experience to be able to reach higher.
Years ago Corey gave me an unusual present. I had not been having much luck keeping plants alive in my office. My office at that time had no natural light and, to be quite honest, I did not give them much water. Once I finally pulled my last dead plant out of the office, Corey went into action and purchased a little friend to keep me company -- a leopard-gecko. I had never owned a lizard before. In fact, I am not sure whether or not I had ever wanted to own a lizard before. But, it quickly became a conversation piece in my office. My gecko was beautiful and was a pretty well behaved office mate. Although I was really happy to have this new little creature for company (and much more compelled to Awater@ him) I never would have guessed that I would learn so much from this little guy. For one, when given a choice, always choose crickets over meal worms. And, when eating said crickets, always begin at the front end.
A gecko does not do very much over a 24 hour period. He sleeps, he eats, and he looks around. Yet every once in a while, his skin begins to look a bit different. It starts to get a slight silvery tone and cloud up. The color change usually begins on his tail and within a day spreads all the way up to the tip of his nose. Then, the fascinating work begins. He begins rubbing C rubbing against his water dish, rubbing against his shelter, even rubbing against the glass. Eventually he rubs enough that he is able to tear off this clouded outer layer of skin and reveal a fresh new layer underneath. This process takes hours and hours. And, many times throughout this exercise he has to stop to regain his breath C it is not easy work. Yet eventually, this new lizard emerges.
This shedding process has nothing to do with intelligence. This gecko does not contemplate new skin or old skin. Rather, it instinctively understands when it is time to shed. Somehow it recognizes that its outer skin is dry and worn and old and that underneath it is fresh and beautiful and new. How many of us can say the same thing? How many of us know what lies beneath our skin? How many of us know when it is time to look? How many of us are willing to put in the hard work of shedding an old skin? Or are willing to paint our canvas again? Or stretch like the Morning Glory or try on new surroundings like the Hermit Crab? Or put our strength, dedication and intention into making a possible glass masterpiece or a mess but knowing the gain is in the process itself.
Doing this kind of personal work may feel fruitless or even like we are moving backward. But, every destination uncovers a new bend around the corner and a new hill to crest. Growth is in the journey. Wisdom is gained along our travels.
Many years ago, when I was still a student in rabbinical school and serving as a hospital chaplain, I had a quiet yet profound conversation with a dying man as he held my hand on his final day. He explained in barely audible tones that he had been inflexible and unyielding in both his personal and professional life. He was sorry for this rigidity and he had tried to make amends in his last few years. But with incredible insight he realized that the period of stubbornness and difficulty coincided exactly with a very long period in his life when he felt he was at the top of his game, a peer to no one, a giant in his professional field. It was only later, when age and illness slowed him down, that he took time for inner growth. It was only at this stage in life that he was honest with himself. It was only now, when it was too late, that he realized how much he had missed in life by thinking his canvas was already complete.
I promised myself that day that I would learn from his death-bed clarity, even if it meant pushing myself; even if it meant that I would always have a paint brush in my hand.
Each year I ascend the bima, dressed in white like my burial shrouds with a broken heart and cry out, “If I could have one more year, I could create yet another masterpiece, I could shed my skin, I could reach, I could grow, I could be – I am not yet finished.”
Today is Yom Kippur – it is the dress rehearsal for our death. Who here is ready? Who is ready to say to God, family and community that yes, I could die today as a work of Your art, but if given one more year I could create a new masterpiece? Who is brave enough to join me in admitting that their canvas is not yet complete?
Are we waiting for our deathbed clarity or can we use Yom Kippur to spur us on? Are our oil paints dry, are our brushes worn out, is our canvas really finished? Are we really so self important that we claim to be the only organic beings that are not growing – reaching for the sun, searching for new shells? Are we unwilling to explore what may be hidden deep beneath a dull weathered skin? Are we finished for the year? For our lifetime?
My hope and prayer is that no -- today is practice for our last day on earth but not our actual day of death. My hope and prayer is that we will start painting anew and reaching upward. My hope and prayer is that you will accept my offer to join me as we continue to grow as individuals and as a community.
May this be the hour in which we recognize our mortality. May this be the day in which we wake up with clarity. And may this be the year that we are inscribed again in the Book ofLife.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah.
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