We began this evening with silence. Erev Yom Kippur is marked out by the haunting melody of Kol Nidrey, the Medieval text, opening with the words ‘All vows’, which has also lent its name to the first service of the special day out of time that is Yom Kippur. But for me, the meaning of the day is always signalled a few minutes earlier. It is when we stand silently before the open ark, the silence etched by the faint tinkle of the bells of the rimonim that adorn the scrolls cradled in the arms of their temporary custodians, that I really know that this awesome day has arrived.
Silence: It is not the Jewish way of every day; we talk; we shout; we sing – we are rarely silent. And even on this exceptional day of Yom Kippur, we will spend most of the time uttering words and singing; delving only briefly into pools of silence. If a non-Jewish visitor were to come here on Yom Kippur, who had never been with us before, they might be forgiven for thinking that it’s a very busy day of marathon proportions – not least because of the endless changes of personnel; both leading the service and participating in it.
But all that external hyper-activity is only half the story. For all the comings and goings, something else is happening that can’t be seen. But still, we might ask, why is it that we are silent so infrequently on Yom Kippur? Perhaps, one of the reasons is that silence is only partly characterised by the absence of noise around us; it is when everything around us is quiet and still that we are more likely to be aware of the noise within us: Not just our gurgling stomachs around noon on the day of Yom Kippur, but the beating of our hearts and the voices in our heads.
The truth is, more than anything else, we have come here on this most sacred day of the Jewish year to listen to the voices within – not the sounds without. Or rather, the purpose of all those external sounds – the beautiful words and evocative music – is to beckon us to enter into ourselves. But entering ourselves is very hard – even scary; without the external garb of the liturgy, we feel a kind of spiritual nakedness; much safer to wrap ourselves in the words and the music…
Have you ever read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett? It tells the story of nine year old Mary Lennox, who, following the death of her parents during a cholera epidemic in India, goes to live at the home of her uncle, Archibald Craven, in Yorkshire. He has a huge house with grounds that include several walled gardens. Brought there from London by Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper, lonely Mary, already a neglected child, finds that her uncle is not interested in her – in fact, he departs the morning following her arrival to resume his travels. Left to her own devices, Mary explores the new world around her, and discovers a garden that has been locked for ten years…
I have no intention of telling you the whole story. If you missed out on The Secret Garden as a child – do find the time to read it. I’ve mentioned this novel for two reasons: because of solitary Mary Lennox – who does, fortunately, find a friend; and because of that mysterious garden that she just has to discover for herself. Reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beautiful tale at face value, the plot is simple: there is a lonely little girl and a garden. But at another level, we can discern that Mary and the garden are one: not only that secret place, but also Mary, herself, is a mystery she unlocks and explores.
Yom Kippur is an invitation to unlock the garden of our inner selves. When we went to Cornwall for six days in June, Jess and I spent time in St. Ives. Jutting out into the Atlantic and boasting three rugged coves, St. Ives is as famous for its art as for its beaches, and while we were there we visited both the Tate, which displays international modern and contemporary art, and also the house, studio and garden of sculptor, Barbara Hepworth. When you are outside the high walls of Barbara Hepworth’s house, which opens straight on to a narrow street, it is not apparent what lies within. The garden is dense with foliage and also with sculptures, which seem to express the relationship between exterior and interior in a way that draws you in from the beautifully wrought stone and wood rounded surfaces to an inner landscape, where space is the dominant feature. You want to explore with your fingers – which, of course, is not allowed – so, the next best thing is to follow the lines, shapes and hollows with your eyes, and walk this way and that to see how the space changes.
Having engaged in this way with the Barbara Hepworth sculptures displayed in the Tate, opposite the massive window overlooking Porthmeor Beach, seeing the sculptures in her garden, outside the studio where she worked was a very different experience. So, what was the difference? At first glance, it might appear that the gallery is a carefully constructed environment and the garden is a more natural setting. But, of course, this is not the case: the garden, like all gardens, has also been crafted, reflecting Barbara Hepworth’s imagination as much as the sculptures themselves. The difference lay not in the contrast between gallery and garden, but in what the garden represented: the living world of the artist.
When we look at the work of any artist, we have the immense privilege of glimpsing a part of what for want of a better word, I will call their soul – an experience, which is deepened when we also enter the environment in which the artist lived and worked and see their soul’s creations in situ. Of course, being an artist involves immense technical skill, but more important than this is their creative vision and their unique way of translating that vision into forms – traditionally, sculptures or paintings.
Few of us may be moved to express ourselves as painters or sculptors – but as human beings all of us are blessed with the gift of creativity, which we may live out in different ways. It is, indeed, our creativity, our ability to shape the world around us, which distinguishes us from the other creatures, with whom, after all, we share so much from a biological point of view.
Just over two months ago now, two ten week old half-Siamese black-brown kittens, sisters, whom we have called Dinah and Lailah, took up residence in our house. I could devote an entire sermon to my reflections on and what I’ve learnt from Lailah and Dinah, but I will cut to the chase: A few days after they had received their last vaccinations, when they were almost fifteen weeks old, we let them outside into our tiny back garden for the first time – accompanied of course. A pleasant decked area with plants and vegetables and small trees, it was a revelation to watch them discover the world outside. But before they began to scamper about and find new nooks and crannies to explore, they were completely still: their ears pricking as they took in the new sounds – the squawk of sea-gulls over-head and the buzz of the bees; their noses twitching as new unfamiliar smells assailed them; their eyes darting in all directions – and then becoming transfixed as they saw for the first time, flowers and plants moving in the light breeze. As I watched their fascination, I realised that, of course, until that moment, things only moved when they – or we – moved them.
Dinah and Lailah have discovered a whole new world of the outside, which will expand as they grow, and begin to explore beyond the garden walls – which, now twenty weeks old, they cannot wait to do… They will, no doubt, become great explorers and bring back trophies of their expeditions, but creatures of nature they will never know what it is to cultivate a garden or plan their day or listen to their inner voice. Less naturally agile than cats, much slower to develop, nevertheless, we human beings have unique creative and expressive abilities, which we harness as we go out into the world.
But today is not a day for going out into the world. On the contrary: Yom Kippur is the time for stepping back from the sturm und drang – the ‘tumult’ of daily existence – and investigating our selves and our inner lives, so that when we return to our day to day concerns, we are not only refreshed, but also ready to try and live in a new way. But this is much easier said than done. How do we begin to live in a new way? What can possibly help us during these twenty-five hours to start anew?
Of course, what we find helpful will very much depend on who we are as individuals. Nevertheless, I have a feeling we could all learn a lot about what it means to investigate ourselves, and pay attention to our inner lives by thinking about the various tasks involved in gardening – which are essentially the same, whether the garden is big or small, an artist’s garden, or our own cultivated domain at home. And, for those, who either don’t have a garden, or don’t look after the one they have, I hope my remarks, nevertheless are useful as you begin to think about taking care of your inner self.
So what are the most important gardening tasks? Top of the list must be, preparing the ground, clearing the weeds, and enriching the soil. Then, there’s planning what you want to grow, where. Next, there’s the planting itself – and the watering; an on-going essential – along with dead-heading and weeding and feeding and pruning. Anyone who has a big garden will be occupied almost full-time on these tasks during the spring and summer.
So, what has all this got to do with ourselves? Well, today is the day for taking the neglected garden of ourselves in hand; for raking through the tangle of our mistakes and stubborn ways; for exposing the little deceits and convoluted conceits that enmesh us, to the light and the air of honest reflection; for examining our bad habits and resolving to break them; for allowing ourselves to be nourished by the words and the music of the prayers, and the messages of the readings; for thinking about ways to better look after our bodies, nurture our minds and tend our souls; for considering what we can do to enhance the lives of others and work for justice and peace.
Today we are called not just to stand and sit, to read and sing and ponder, but to garden. And where better to work out how to garden our selves than in a garden? Welcome to the garden that is Yom Kippur; a garden so long established, so attuned to visitors for millennia, so perfectly appointed, that all we have to do is enter it, enjoy its light and shade – and eat of its fruit – metaphorically speaking, of course! Here, in this special sheltered space, set apart behind its walls of ritual and liturgy from the everyday world, we are invited to dwell awhile. Here, in this container of tranquillity, holding the now for a long moment, we have the opportunity to pause and be still. How can any of us resist?
We can’t. That’s why we are here. But there is work for us to do – that gardening of ourselves – and while we are busy doing it – or, perhaps, busy not doing it – we can’t help waiting; it is all here before us – and yet we wait: because there has to be more than a beautiful garden; there has to be more than the challenge to garden ourselves. And there is. But the ‘more’ cannot be scripted. It’s like when Lailah and Dinah went into the back-garden for the first time and became transfixed by the flowers and plants moving in the invisible breeze. We read in the Torah, in the tale of the first human beings, in Genesis chapter 3, that after they had eaten the fruit of the forbidden tree, ‘they heard the voice of the Eternal God walking around in the garden at the windy time of the day and hid themselves….. from the presence of the Eternal God amongst the trees of the garden’ (:8). Unlike Dinah and Lailah, the first man and woman knew that something was making the leaves rustle; they heard a voice that walked in the wind – ru’ach, a word that means both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ – and they were afraid because they knew that they had transgressed. We, too, know that we have done wrong and gone wrong – that’s why we are here. But being here, it’s not enough for us to admit our errors – we could do that on our own at home – we need to feel that being here has made a difference.
Since most of us don’t have that ready and direct awareness of God, we wait – not for a voice, or for a sign, but for a moment that stills us; a moment of silence between the words and sounds that surround us, when we realise that who we are and what we do, for good and for ill, really does matter. It is in that moment, that we will begin to find ourselves and so begin to find each other. It is in that moment that we will be ready to return to ourselves, and so be able to return to one another. It is in that moment that we will know that when we walk out into the world once more we will have the resources to take responsibility for our lives, and begin a new year. May each one of us, in our own ways, discover that moment. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Erev Yom Kippur, 10th Tishri 5770 – 27th September 2009