September 22, 2015

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, Arizona

Tonight marks the 50th anniversary of Sandy Koufax sitting out the first game of the World Series.  Some of you may remember what that meant to Jews in America, when the best pitcher in the most popular sport, America’s pastime, chose not to play in the most important game of the year.  It was considered a courageous act, and a symbol of American Jewish acceptance and pride in our heritage.

The best part of the story was that the Dodgers’ other ace, Don Drysdale, pitched in Koufax’ place.  Unfortunately, Drysdale was pretty bad that particular day against the Minnesota Twins, giving up 7 runs in less than 3 innings including two homers.  When his manager, Walter Alston came out to pull Drysdale and bring in a relief pitcher, Drysdale said to Alston, “I bet right now you wish I was Jewish too, Skip.”

But before I even start I digress…

Perhaps you saw this story, or the Youtube video

About a month ago a 12 year-old boy in Taiwan was looking at a painting in an art museum.  It was part of an exhibit called the “Face of Leonardo: Images of a Genius” in Taipei. The video shows the boy – in shorts, tennis shoes and a blue Puma T-shirt, holding a soft drink in one hand – walking past a still life.  A bit clumsy, as adolescents can be, still growing into his body, he suddenly trips on the platform supporting the 6-foot high painting, and stumbles.  He reaches out instinctively with his hand, which goes right through the painting…  Which was a 350-year old work in oil called “Flowers” by Italian baroque artist Paolo Porpora. The 17th century painting was valued at $1.5 million dollars.

At the end of this disaster the boy looks up at the canvas, freezes, then looks wildly around at the other people in the room…

“The painting’s bottom right is damaged,” the curator said.  “The boy’s hand hit the artwork and left a hole the size of a fist.”

The exhibition organizer said the boy was very nervous but shouldn’t be blamed, and the painting is insured; the insurance company will pay for the restoration.  The boy’s family will not be charged for the cost of restoration.  The exhibit, which also includes portraits of Leonardo da Vinci, shows 55 paintings in Taiwan “gathered from the finest art collectors in the world”, according to the organizers.

“All 55 paintings in the venue are authentic pieces and they are very rare and precious,” the exhibit’s spokesperson said.  “Once these works are damaged, they are permanently damaged.” 

The organizers decided not to seek damages from the boy's family.  And in a way the kid was lucky: nearby in the display was a self-portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci worth over $200 million.  He could have tripped and gone through that.

Can you imagine?

Oops.  I just tripped and destroyed a masterpiece…

This unnamed Taiwanese boy joins a long list of art klutzes.  Back in 2006, a man tripped over his untied shoelace in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England and smashed three 300-year-old Qing (“Ching”) Dynasty vases.  In 2010, a woman at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art fell into a Picasso, causing a six-inch tear.

And about three weeks ago a young Israeli girl accidentally broke a 2,000-year-old glass vessel during a visit to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  She inadvertently bumped its display case, causing the small gold-glass vase to fall and break.  The museum said the object has now been repaired and swears it is in better shape than it was before the accident.

Perhaps the most egregious blunder was committed by casino mogul Steve Wynn—who is Jewish, by the way; his father changed the name from Weinberg—who was showing off Picasso’s 1932 masterpiece Le Rêve to a group including screenwriter Nora Ephron, broadcaster Barbara Walters, and lawyer David Boies, among others.  Wynn had just arranged to sell the painting for $135 million, when he accidentally put his elbow through it. Unsurprisingly, this negated the sale… although in 2013 Wynn did manage to sell Le Rêve for $155 million. 

While it’s unlikely anyone present here tonight has actually destroyed a nearly priceless work of art, how often have you done something just a bit like this?  There you are, walking along through life, minding your own business, looking at the pictures; and next thing you know—oops. 

I didn’t mean to do it, we say, of course.  Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz trying to explain to the Wicked Witch of the West how her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, came to be under that house.  “I didn’t mean to kill her…” she says.  “You didn’t mean to kill her?” screeches the witch.  And we cringe.

I didn’t mean to fall and destroy that masterpiece.  I didn’t mean to say exactly the wrong thing at the exactly the wrong time.  I didn’t mean to neglect to care.  I didn’t mean to not make a contribution to Temple.  I didn’t mean to miss that appointment.  I didn’t mean to carelessly fail to call you back, to notice how unhappy you were, to be too distracted by everything else so that your needs just drifted away…

Oops.

Fortunately, Judaism sees sin in exactly this way.  Most of the time, perhaps nearly all of the time, it’s not as though we meant to foul up and commit sins or errors.  We were just thinking about something else, looking at the pretty pictures, and—we tripped.

The concept of sin in Judaism, cheit, comes from the sport of archery.  We will say or chant this prayer many times over this Day of Atonement: Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha, for the sin we have committed before You, God… But cheit actually means to miss the mark.  It is sin as mistake, failing to hit the target. 

Of course, the sins we have committed, the ways we have missed the target, the “oops” moments in our lives, have done damage even when we intended only to do good.  And whether our lives in other ways constitute artistic masterpieces or not, we unfortunately have no insurance company to turn to, no restoration experts to take over and fix the messes we have made.   

Or do we?

You see this Day of Atonement is designed as a kind of artistic restoration for all of those mistakes we made, the times we tripped, the moments we missed the mark.  From the first notes of the Kol Nidrei until the last Tekiah Gedolah we are directed through every means possible to seek forgiveness, to find our teshuvah.  The music, the readings, the sermons, the Torah, the Haftarah, the Martyrology, the fasting, the introspection, the meditations, the poetry are all there to help restore our souls to wholeness. 

Yom Kippur is our opportunity to repaint the damaged parts of the only masterpiece most of us will ever possess: our own lives.  This day is our insurance policy, our chance to achieve redemption.  This is the time when we ask God to forgive us for not being the people we could have been this past year.  For not being the spouses we could have been.  For not being the parents we could have been.  For not being the children we could have been.  For not being the friends we could have been.  For not being the Jews we could have been.  It’s our chance to ask everyone we know to forgive us for having hurt them, ignored them, neglected them. 

These 24 hours are our chance to renovate our image, repair our relationships, fix those holes we’ve bashed in things.  It’s our chance to make up for all of those oops moments, the many, many times we missed the mark.

And now is the time to start.

May your teshuvah help you repair that damage.  And may it bring you to wholeness.

G'mar Chatimah Tovah.

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