Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Own the schmutz - A Kol Nidrei Sermon


A story is told about the Baal Shem Tov – the eighteenth century founder of modern Chasidism –

They asked him - what is different since you have come?

And he replied,

Before I came, when a thief tried to enter the house they would shout and scream and try and scare the thief away.

Now I have come – the Baal Shem Tov went on to say – when a thief tries to enter the house, they lie in wait. They trap the thief and they hand the thief over to the proper authorities.[1]


Shouting and trying to scare the thief away


Letting the thief in before turning the thief over to the proper authorities.


It is not, of course, an argument about literal thieves and literal houses.

Rather it is an enquiry into the nature of the human soul.

And it is this enquiry I want us all to engage in on this most holy of evenings.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I spoke about community.

On the second day I spoke about the world out there – the world of collapsing share prices and haemorrhaging banks.

Today, tonight, I want to speak to the nature of the human soul because, I fear, we are all to busy shouting and trying the scare the thief away.

And it doesn’t do us much good.


So what is going on in this parable of the Baal Shem Tov?

Well the house, as the psycho-analysts among us know already – the house is the body – me.

And the thief?

In psycho-analytical terms the thief is the anima, our shadow – our messy stuff – our failures, our shortcomings, our embarrassments.

It’s not just the things we have done, but the things we are drawn to do; the thief is the siren call to do ill, our lusts and our temptations to do ill.

In Rabbinic terms the thief is the yetzer hara – the evil inclination.

The thief is what the yiddishishts among us would call the schmutz


The Baal Shem Tov is saying this;

Before I came, when a person felt the evil inclination coming upon them, they would try and scare the evil inclination away.

Now I have come, he says, we let the schmutz in, we acknowledge that it can’t be scared away, instead we hand it over to the authorities – we work it over, like a baker working over dough, and slowly we purge it of its impurities, we own our schmutz and we heal our schmutz.


This is the great contribution of the Baal Shem Tov – helping us to ‘own our schmutz.’

Teaching us that shouting and screaming and trying to scare the thief away is a response of a child – the thief will duck round the corner and plot another burglary, a return.

We are instead asked to admit that there is something to learn from letting the thief in.

There is always something to learn from our evil inclinations, from all of our actions; even the failures, even the poorer moments.

We need to do a better job ‘owning our schmutz.


Actually I think that we, as members of this community and as members of this oh so modern world, are a step behind even the shouters and the screamers of the Baal Shem Tov’s parable.

We wander round in denial.

We refuse even to acknowledge the invasion of the Baal Shem Tov’s thief.

We would rather pretend we have no evil inclination.

We would rather pretend our sins are somehow justifiable, not really anybody’s fault, and certainly not our own.

How many of us are comfortable with the notion that we are indeed, sinners?

Sin has become a dirty word.

Personal failure is considered an unsuitable topic not only for public discussion, but even in our private moments.

We don’t even like the word Teshuvah – penitence, repentance.

I led a workshop on Teshuvah, here at this Synagogue and attendance was weak – not a popular topic.

And, of those who came, we were all eager to suggest a re-working of the idea of Teshuvah.

We were all eager to reframe Teshuvah as some kind of personal self-improvement manual; a way of bettering ourselves, reaching a higher potential and all that.

None of us wanted to suggest that Teshuvah has a connection to sin.

Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu and all that, well those are just words – but not really about us.

I haven’t lied, I haven’t deceived, I haven’t cheated …my lips haven’t lied, I’ve never coveted that which is not mine

I have no thief lurking around in the bushes at the bottom of my garden.


A story.

I was walking down the road with a friend who was taking their doughy-eyed beagle out for a walk, the beagle was on a lead.

A woman was walking towards us, in front of her trotted a squat butch snarling sort-of-a-dog.

The woman called out, from thirty paces distance, ‘watch out for your dog.’

It took us a few moments to realise what she meant.

From twenty paces distance she called again, ‘watch out for your dog, he’ll attack it.’

And sure enough the squat butch snarling dog had broken into a canter.

‘I mean it, he’ll bite ya dog.’

And the, now yelping, dog flung itself at the beagle who scampered behind its master.

‘I told you,’ snarled the woman as she passed us, taking the dog with her ‘I told you he’d bite.’

‘Why don’t you put him on a leash,’ we both called out in unison at the woman’s back, but she was gone, onto the next canine encounter.

To this woman her dog had done nothing wrong.

And she, certainly, had nothing to repent for, she had after all warned us – twice!

No thief in her garden.

If anything had gone wrong it was someone else’s thief, someone else’s garden.


A little extreme maybe, but I recognise this woman’s impulse in my own actions.

I’m better at seeing faults in others than acknowledging my own failings.

I am expert at blaming myself last.

I think we all do it.

We see thieves lurking in all our fellows’ gardens – we see their jealousies, plot out their psychological failings, their paranoia and only rarely submit ourselves to the same clear-sighted honesty we reserve for those around us.

We’ve trained ourselves to find excuses, we’ve deemed ourselves worthy of dispensations, justifications, anything rather than have to acknowledge our own shortcomings when faced with our own responsibilities.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, not a person I cite with particular regularity, made an excellent observation about the difference between a Rebbe and a Rabbi.

A Rabbi, said Rabbi Sacks, is a person who can speak to a crowd of a hundred and everyone thinks the Rabbi has perfectly encapsulated the person sitting next to them.

The Rebbe, on the other hand, speaks to a crowd of five hundred and everyone feels the Rebbe has encapsulated ‘me.’

I have no pretensions beyond my station, but let me clear – I mean you, each of you, each of us and I certainly include myself.

We need to do a better job acknowledging our darker side, acknowledging that we do, indeed, fail, sin.

Especially on a night like tonight.

Al daat hamakom, v’al daat ha kahal, anu matirin lhitpalel im ha avaryanim.

With the acceptance of God, with the acceptance of the community, we pray with the sinners.

We are, on this night, those sinners.



Like Eskimos and their snow,

We Jews have lots of words for sin.

  • Aveyrah – A wilful spite; the term implies a flagrant, almost joyful riding out against the grain of appropriate behaviour.
  • Cheit – A miss, close, but not good enough. If only we had concentrated a little more …
  • Avon – A weight, a burden, sitting across our shoulders, our guilt.

If we are prepared to accept our thief inside we have a hope of understanding our averot, our chatayim, our avonot.

Letting the thief inside a little will help us plot through the jumble of our flagrant disregard, our laziness and our guilt.

Letting the thief inside can help us mend these breakages in our soul, in our relationships.

It can help us be more whole, more complete, more suited for the tasks of our human existence.


Oh ye woeful sinners, don’t be too downhearted.

Failing, sinning, possessing schmutz is no terrible thing. In fact it is quintessentially human.

Human beings were not designed to be perfect.

According to the Rabbinic tradition God had perfect company – angels – before the creation of the first human but felt angelic company lacked something, lacked the all too human propensity for schmutz.


From the Midrash,

When God came to create the first human the angels fell into dispute. Some said don’t create, some said create. The angel of kindness said, ‘create’ because the human will perform acts of kindness. The angel of truth said, ‘don’t create, because the human will lie. The angel of justice said create for they will seek justice and the angel of peace said don’t create for there are full of strife. And while the angels were arguing and debating God created Adam and said to them, ‘what are you arguing about, it’s done already.’[2]


When the Bible uses the term ‘create’ to detail the creation of the first human it spells the word vayitzer unusually, with two ‘yuds’ rather than the one that would be the normal spelling.

The unusual spelling cries out for Rabbinic commentary

Btairin yitzrin – with two inclinations - says the Mediavel Targum Yonatan -

The first human, and every human since is created with yetzer hatov and yetzer hara – the inclination to good and the inclination to evil.[3]


Having a yetzer ra, owning up to carrying around a bunch of sin and failure doesn’t make us beyond the pale, it makes us who we are, as human beings.

This is how God wishes us to be.


Italo Calvino, the twentieth century fantacist, wrote a tale of the Cloven Viscount. It’s an account of a mythic Viscount - Medardo of Terralba – who set out to battle and gets himself blown up. His remains are carried to the field hospital only for it to be realised that the Viscount has lost not only an arm and a leg, as Calvino writes;

the whole thorax and abdomen between that arm and leg had been swept away by [a] direct hit. All that remained of the head was one eye, one ear, one cheek, half a nose, half a mouth, half a chin and half a forehead. The long and short of it was,’ [suggests Calvino in playful seriousness], ‘that exactly half of him had been saved, the right part, perfectly  preserved, without a scratch on it, excepting the huge slash separating it from the left-hand part which had been blown away.’[4]


This cloven Count is nursed back to life and, much to the distress of all who knew him before his accident, it turns out that only the wicked, the evil part of the Count has been preserved and this right-hand-side of the Viscount spends his life inflicting cruelty on any beast or animal that comes his way.

The story takes a turn when the left-side of the Count arrives on the scene, some chapters later. Here at last comes the good-side, and at first all seems well.

But Calvino isn’t letting us get away with such simplicity.

[The Good ‘un, as he was known] ‘would come hobbling through the pine trees with a bundle tied to his shoulder. It held clothes to be washed and mended which he gathered from lonely beggars, orphans and the sick, and he got [the farmer’s daughter] Pamela to wash them, thus giving her a chance to do good too.’ And he would help her, or read to her with, as Calvino puts it, ‘the aim of civilizing the rustic girl’s deportment. But [being] unable to follow the thread [she spent the time] quietly inciting the goat to lick the Count’s half-face.’[5]



Of course the Bad ‘Un is insufferable, but the good half is equally intolerable, he even falls out with the local lepers, too goody-goody.

‘Our sensibilities became numbed,’ says our narrator, ‘as we felt ourselves lost between an evil and a virtue equally inhuman.’[6]


It might be superficially appealing to consider ourselves only the good-side. But, aside, from being dishonest, it would be awful, who would want our company?


A life lived purely under the influence of the good inclination is also a feature of a Talmudic encounter from tractate Yoma.

The Children of Israel, we are told, find themselves recipients of a particular moment of grace and decide to pray for the evil inclination to be handed over to them. And so it is.

They are about to kill off this wickedness when they are warned that doing so would destroy the world.

They imprison the inclination for three days and ‘looked in the entire land of Israel for a fresh egg and couldn’t find one.’

So they let the evil inclination go.[7]

The evil inclination is a necessary part of life, we shouldn’t hide from it, cleave it apart from our good side or imprison it.


So the aim is not to do without the evil inclination, and not to disregard it.

The aim is to own it.

Take responsibility for it.

Accept our humanity.

And then to tweak at it, to use our awareness of our own failings and shortcomings to prod at us, allow us to understand more deeply the nature of our humanity.

The aim is shleimut – from the same Hebrew root as shalom, it means not so much peace as wholeness.

The aim is to stand before our Creator whole.

In honesty

Bringing both schmutz and our merit with us.


The danger of the contemporary world with its self-help positive thinking is that it prompts us to forget ourselves, or at least half of ourselves. We imagine ourselves wandering around like Calvino’s cloven Good ‘Un and that’s not good.

Instead we need to let the thief in. Allow ourselves to consider our sins, our failings, to ask why, after all the these years, we keep making the same mistakes.

We need to know that we could be better, that we can improve, and we can’t do that unless we acknowledge that, just like every human in this glorious universe of ours, we have our faults, we have, indeed a thief in the bottom of the garden.


And as for Calvino’s Cloven Viscount, what became of him.

Well the two halves are re-united. As Calvino’s narrator recounts, ‘my uncle Medardo became a whole man again, neither good nor bad, but a mixture of goodness and badness… Some might expect that with the Viscount entire again a period of marvellous happiness would open; but obviously a whole Viscount is not enough to make all the world whole.’

Indeed it is not.


But the journey towards this wholeness, this shleimut, this shalom-ness of the world begins with each of us and our individual response to the thief lurking at the bottom of our gardens.


Gemar Chatimah Tovah – A good sealing, to one and all.

[1] I heard this story and its perush from Rabbi Yeshoshua Engleman

[2] Bereshit Rabba 8:5

[3] Rejected, forcibly in Rashi Gen 2:7, but see Bereshit Rabba 14:4

[4] The Cloven Viscount in I. Calvino Our Ancestor (Vintage, London, 1998) p. 10.

[5] P. 55

[6] P. 64

[7] Yoma 69b, actually they blind it ‘It helped inasmuch as he no more entices men to commit incest.’

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