Religious Life

Refinishing our Hearts for the New Year

Refinishing our Hearts for the New Year
28 Elul 5778 | September 8, 2018
Rabbi Alexander Davis

Daniel: Hey Mr. Miyagi, this is beautiful. Man, I thought Chung Lees Chinese restaurant was nice. This is paradise. You made this garden, this deck yourself?

Mr. Miyagi: Ahh.

Daniel: What are these? Bongos?

Miyagi: Ahh, Daniel-son, you bunch of humor.

Daniel: What are they?

Miyagi: Japanese sander.

Daniel: What do you do with them?

Miyagi: Funny you should ask. Right to circle. Left to circle. Right to circle. Left to circle.

Daniel: Wouldn’t it be easier to go back and forth?

Miyagi: Ay yay yay. But you go right to circle. Left to circle. Right to circle. Left to circle.

Breath in. Breath out. Right to circle. Left to circle. Breath in. Breath out.

Some of you may recognize this from the 1984 movie, The Karate Kid. It came just before the better known, “Wax on. Wax off.” I thought about this scene earlier this summer as we began on a house project. And I think of it now as we prepare for the Yamim Noraim.

First the house project. Here is just a bit of free advice- get carpet.

Of all the household repairs, refinishing wood floors is a pain in the tuchas. No, I didn’t do it by hand. Right to circle. Left to circle. I didn’t do it at all. And of course, there are machines. But still, everything has to be moved out- furniture, drapes, paintings on the walls. All cabinets have to be taped closed. It’s days of sanding, staining and finishing and then cleaning a layer of dust before moving and putting back the furniture and books and drapes and paintings.

If it had just been a few scratches, I might not have bothered. But there were areas of the floor by the kitchen sink that were really worn. And the stairs that never matched the floors. At some point, the wood itself would have been compromised and need greater repair. And at some point, we got tired of mismatched stairs. So, we refinished the floors.

Refinishing floors is to a house what tshuva is to the soul. Yes, it’s messy, costly, work. But when it’s done, it is worthwhile.

I’d like to look at a Chasidic text with you that makes a similar comparison. It’s not about floors. But you’ll get the point.

It’s a text from the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger.  Known as the Sfat Emet, he lived just outside of Warsaw. He died in 1905 and it was then that his collection of teachings was first published. This text is from Art Green’s collection of his teachings.

First let me ask you, when we sing, “kotveinu b’sefer chayim” what comes to mind? What are you praying for?

The Gerrer Rebbe taught:

Inscribe us for life.” There is a holy point in each Jewish person’s heart. This is the living soul, of which it says: “God has implanted eternal life within us.” But over the course of each year, as we become accustomed to sinning, the material self overpowers and hides that holy point. We then have to seek compassion from the blessed Holy One, asking that this imprint in our heart be renewed on Rosh Hashanah. This is what we mean when we say, “Inscribe us for life.”

This is the same as “engrave on the tablets” (Ex. 32:16) which our sages read as “freedom on the tablets (charut/cherut), referring to freedom from the angel of death and the evil will. At the moment of receiving the Torah, Israelites were prepared to have that writing never erased. But along came sin and spoiled that. Now we need to renew that “for life” each year.

The “sealing” for life, to which we refer in the Neilah prayer on Yom Kippur means that this inward point has to remain sealed up, so that the life-flow does not go anywhere. Thus, Scripture refers to the inner self as a “locked garden…the fountain sealed” (Shir Hashirim 4:12).

In the Talmud, the idea of being written in the Book of Life is meant literally. Whether we live or die is decided this coming week. Others suggest that it refers to life in the world to come. For chasidim as we’ll see here, the Book of Life is understood as a metaphor, a symbol for the spiritual life.

Each person has a holy point, a living soul. The proof text for this notion suggests that the soul is eternal. It lives forever. But sin covers it. What happens to an eternal soul covered up by sin? He doesn’t say exactly. But we need to renew the soul.

The Israelites at Sinai had words engraved on tablets. What is he talking about? He moves from the 10 Commandments to “To Life.” What tablets is he referring to? At Sinai, God wrote on the tablets of our heart, “to life.” Each year, we need that writing renewed. Sealing in the writing, seals in the life force.

Art Green explains the passage this way: “Here we have an important spiritual reading of an ancient theme, that of inscription in the Book of Life. The Book of Life is within you, the Sfat Emet teaches. God needs to write “Life!” on the tablets of your heart each year. Your task is to keep those inner tablets free enough from the accumulated grime caused by sin, guilt, the insanely fast pace at which we live, and all the rest, so that you have time to read (and follow!) that holy word.”

According to the Sfat Emet, Rosh Hashana is a time to refinish our hearts and seal in the word “l’chayim.” It requires removing, sanding off the accumulated grime and scrapes, restoring the soul to its original state and then sealing in the pure life force.

At home, since we finished the work, we have been trying to be so careful. We wear shoes less. We don’t drag chairs or furniture. And we are in the process of buying a few more rugs for the kitchen.

So too with our soul. Inevitably it will become blemished. But God who is m’chadesh b’kol yom tamid maaseh bereshit, always renewing creation, invites us to renew our lives as well, to refinish our hearts bringing them back to their original state of creation.

“Right to circle. Left to circle. Breath in. Breath out.” As the new year circles around, it is time to refinish, refurbish, renew our hearts.

Shana Tova!