Yom Kippur, September 2018 (10 Tishrei 5779)
Back in 1974, then Boston Herald columnist Bob Considine imagined a conversation between the artistic genius Michelangelo and a fan about the statue of David. Asked the fan, “How in God’s name could you have achieved a masterpiece like this from a crude slab of marble?” To which Michelangelo replied, “It was easy. All I did was chip away everything that didn’t look like David.”
History tells a more complicated story. It turns out that back in 1464, the block of marble that was to become one of the most magnificent statues ever created began with a mistake.
Years before Michelangelo was even born, the town of Florence hired a sculptor with great references but a terrible eye. At the quarry, that original sculptor chose a stone that was not just huge but hugely imperfect.
Worse, he “roughed out” the block to leave only what he thought was just enough to make the statue. In so doing, he had made a big hole right in the middle.
Hard to imagine how it could get worse, but it did.
After much pomp and circumstance, the gigantic block of marble was delivered by what I assume were the great-grandparents of modern-day movers, because they immediately, unceremoniously, dumped it in the courtyard behind the cathedral and hightailed it out of there.
The city leaders went out to inspect the delivery and immediately knew they had a problem. What was left of the original marble was so thin that no one could imagine how it could ever be carved into a human likeness.
They fired the sculptor on the spot. The marble, however, couldn’t be returned, so according to journalist Sam Anderson, it just “sat there, on its side, getting rained on, hailed on…for more than 30 years.”
Eventually, the people of Florence got fed up with having a huge block of marble in the center of their town and decided to try again. The interview committee hired a young upstart with a very short reference list – exactly one previous public statue to his name. Most people felt sorry for the kid – he’d clearly taken a dog of a project.
Michelangelo, for his part, knew this would make him or break him. He set to work, barely eating or sleeping for nearly two years.
When the statue was unveiled, it was clear to all – Michelangelo had pulled a “miracle” from the stone. A miracle that emerged from mistakes.
If ever anything defined the purpose of Yom Kippur, it is that lofty goal: Turning mistakes into miracles.
When we look back seriously over the previous year in each of our lives, we all find some equivalent of poorly quarried stones. We had the best of intentions, we had the vision of what we should do, who we should be…but it didn’t quite work out.
We wanted to be patient, but the people in our life kept on nudging until we lost it. We wanted to spend more time with our kids, but deadlines loomed. We wanted to be kinder, less judgmental, but really, he shouldn’t have worn THAT.
And those are just the superficial examples of what Milton Steinberg called our persistent failures.
Maybe you recognize yourself in the Ashamnu litany we recite. Maybe you’ve made mistakes in your moral compass: you’ve lied when you should have been honest, or been angry when you should have been calm. Maybe you’ve broken a trust. Maybe you have failed to step up when the world required your courage. Maybe you have disappointed yourself, falling into harmful habits that you KNOW are not serving you but that you just cannot seem to overcome.
For all of those and more, the story of the stone that would become the great statue of David has tremendous wisdom for us today. Sam Anderson writes of Michelangelo, “The young sculptor had not run from the odd dimensions of the block; he embraced them, turning them into his figure’s signature elements. The block’s narrowness yielded the lean, twisting body.”
The greatness of Michelangelo was that he did not transcend the mistakes, nor did he change the mistakes – he worked with the mistakes to create a masterpiece.
There could be no greater wisdom for us now. If, as this holy day tells us – if, as our life experience tells us – we all face the challenge of persistent failures, what would it look like to work with them?
If tonight, we looked at our life like that pockmarked, water-logged, and sun-bleached slab, and said “Okay…what is here that I can work with?”
A classmate of mine from rabbinical school, Mark Borovitz, has been a model of doing just that. I’ll never forget how, when Mark was ordained, Rabbi Ed Feinstein dubbed him “The holy thief.”
It was a nickname well-earned. From his earliest days, Mark’s weakness was taking from others. From baseball cards to major financial scams, he justified it all. As the stakes grew higher and higher, he succumbed to addiction, spiraling into self-destruction that landed him in prison and at the edge of death.
He realized then that he had to stop taking and start giving. But how?
He looked at what he knew. He knew prison. So he began to volunteer to help inmates at prison. He knew Jewish. Throughout his days of gambling, stealing, and drinking, he had gone to shul to say kaddish for his father every day. He knew addiction. So, he started work that continues today at Beit Teshuvah, a Jewish recovery center.
Shaping the thief inside, Mark has become a holy thief, helping thousands to steal back their own lives toward wholeness and hope.
The Torah is not short on teaching us about people who find ways to work with their failings: Joseph, whose arrogance in dream interpretation drove his brothers to distraction but ultimately becomes his redemption. Moses, who struggles with his anger but learns to let go. David, who himself is no stranger to sin. They have enormous faults. Yet we admire them. Why?
Micah Goodman teaches that that is one of the Torah’s greatest gifts to us. We learn from these heroes, who do not always act like heroes, that “we can admire someone with huge faults. And by extension, can admire ourselves, even through our own faults.”
If Yom Kippur works, it works not because we beat ourselves down with our flaws and our failures, but because we examine ourselves and find within the inspiration to chip away at those flaws to uncover what is already holy inside – to, like Michelangelo, turn mistakes into miracles.
Now, you may say, Michelangelo was a genius at carving stone; I am a regular person just trying to carve out a life. How could I compare my task tonight with the great Michelangelo?
But Michelangelo did three things that each of us can absolutely do.
First: When he first took the job working with that mediocre marble, he built walls all around the slab to work without spectators, to perhaps make some of his own mistakes along the way, to give himself the freedom to carve and craft without others saying “You’re chipping there? Oh, I definitely would not do that.”
This holiday is our wall around the sculptures of our lives – the quiet space to begin the reflection needed to uncover what we need to chip away at now.
Second: Michelangelo had the chutzpah to believe it was possible. Where others saw unredeemable, impossible flaws, he saw opportunity. He is reported to have said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” With conviction and persistence, the same can be true for each of us.
Finally: It turns out that for all the mistakes Michelangelo turned to miracles in his David, there was one he never could.
Because of the unique twist of the torso, the way the weight is distributed over the base in response to the mistakes of the original stone cutter, combined with hundreds of years the statue spent outdoors exposed to the elements, David’s ankles have developed fractures that could, one day, if the masterpiece tilted a bit to the left of right, a bit forward or back, cause the statue to break apart. And so the museum where the statue is displayed now employs high tech solutions to protect what is so beautiful and so vulnerable.
So too for us – we all need support to lift each other up at the times when life tilts us off our center and threatens to fracture us where we stand.
That, too, is what we are doing here now – strengthening the bonds we most need of family and community as together we ask ourselves to look inside and see the angel we are meant to be. To look at each other and see the angels locked inside. To look at the weathered marble of the world and liberate the angels of our better nature to rise for the critical work of much-needed repair.
Michelangelo saw the angel in the flawed marble and carved until he set him free. It did not happen overnight. It took chip, chip, chip, carve, carve, carve. All day. Every day. For years.
So too for us. No matter how damaged we think we may be, we can choose to see the angel in the marble of our lives. We can work with what we have and work on what we do not. It will not happen overnight. But, chip, chip, chip, carve, carve, carve. Today, we begin the holy work of setting our best selves free.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah!