I’ve been thinking about the Mark Rothko’s murals at the Tate gallery. I went, again, to see them earlier this week.
You might know them, they look like this, but vast. They hog entire walls of a room built precisely to fit them. Their story is one of the great tales of twentieth century modern art. Rothko, the Jewish abstract artist, was commissioned in the 1950s to paint murals to hang in the fanciest restaurant in New York, but he had no interest in pretty interior design. He wanted to confront us, his audience, with the realities of our mortal condition. He knew he was up against diners’ gossip and the architect’s glitter and he accepted the commission with what his biographer calls ‘malice.’ He tells a stranger he wanted to paint something to ‘ruin the appetite of every[one] who ever eats in that room.’ With work nearing completion he goes to the restaurant, The Four Seasons, for dinner and … gives up. Sat amongst the fancy linen and cut-glass chandeliers Rothko can’t imagine ‘anyone who will eat that kind of food for that kind of money [looking] at a painting of mine.’ The paintings are fabulous, but he hasn’t a chance of breaking in on the tittle-tattle, and he knows it. He returns the advance and refuses to allow the restaurant to have the works. Instead – still trying to confront us with our mortal condition – he gives seven of the canvases to the Tate. It’s a gift that comes with extensive instructions; how the paintings are to be hung – no other work in the room, light arrayed just so. Rothko said he didn’t want the canvases so much to occupy their walls, as defeat them – defeat us, break in on us. And at last, in the Tate, they work, at least they work on me, at least sometimes.
Rothko’s desire to break in on tittle-tattle is an old Yom Kippur concern, as old as Isaiah who railed against the Four Seasons’ diners of his day. This is from the Haftarah we read tomorrow, ‘Is this the fast I desire? You call this a fast! It’s your fast day and you see to your business. You fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist.’ There goes the prophet, desperately trying to break in on the tittle-tattle.
Rothko’s sentiments are ones any congregational Rabbi will recognise. Here we are fighting for more attention to be paid to our version of what it means to stand before the realities of the human condition and it’s hard work. It can feel a little like standing up at the Four Seasons to make the case for God and Torah in a restaurant where everyone is more interested in amuses bouche and petites fours. Still tonight, Kol Nidrei, is as good as it gets for a congregational Rabbi, this is our room at the Tate – so here we go. Here’s my confrontation with the realities of our existence; two things about the realities of our mortal condition, and two things to do about each of them.
The first thing to know is that we are not the defining creative force in our life. We are the product of forces beyond understanding and we live lives beyond our ability to control. I call the true creative force governing my existence God, you can call it what you wish. The point is to acknowledge we are subject to forces beyond our measure. We should acknowledge our lives depend, not so much on our personal achievements, puny as they are when stacked up against a scale the size of the Universe, but on a mystery the wiles and mechanics of which we cannot know.
And there are two ways to deal with this existential reality.
The first response is ‘gratitude.’ Being in a state of gratitude stops us from taking life for granted. It reminds us of our gifts. It’s good to get up in the morning and make a blessing for - and this is the run of blessings in the morning service - the ability to see, for clothing to cover our nakedness, for physical possibility, for the strength to go through the day. There’s a line in the Talmud that suggests that a person who fails to say a blessing before or after they eat is like a thief. From where do you think the gift of food comes? The more we show gratitude the less we take the extraordinary gift of our lives as obvious – the more we become worthy of the gifts we do indeed possess. We should be more grateful, say thank you more often, make more blessings.
The other response is ‘limits.’ It’s good to demonstrate restraint. Stopping ourselves treating everyone and everything as if their only purpose is to meet our needs is perhaps the greatest challenge of our contemporary existence; though, certainly in the Jewish mind, we’ve been advocating the importance of restraint since God first commanded us to keep the Sabbath over 3000 years ago. I believe in borders and protections; days on which I don’t shop, or surf. Days on which I stop the pretence that my acquisition of yet more and more stuff actually helps me be a better person. When we stop pursuing what we don’t need, we realise what we have. We realise the true gift of our creation. We develop an ethical humility that stops us trampling over everyone and everything else.
So that’s the first reality of our mortal condition – there is something beyond our ability to control – and the way to respond to this reality is with gratitude and limits.
The second aspect of our mortal condition is that connection helps. It’s a big ol’ universe. Without connection we become lonely –that’s bad enough – but also pointless. Isolated from the world around us we cast no more than a single pin-prick of light in a massive dark expanse. Connecting allows us to, in Dylan Thomas’ glorious words, ‘blaze like meteors and be gay. Rage, rage against the dying of the night.’ It is through connection, not relentless graceless acquisition, that we burn bright and give meaning to our lives.
And there are two ways we should be trying to connect as Jews.
One is to our past and our heritage. There is a tendril that connects us all, those of us here as Jews on this holy night. It connects us through millennia; past the rise of Zionism and the horrors of the Holocaust, past the pogroms and ghettos, back past the Golden Age of Spain and the genius of Rambam, back into the Study Halls from which the Talmud emerged and back to the time we stood in the Temple courtyard and the time we all stood at Sinai, and left Egypt and back to the time we first set off in response to God’s call to Abraham. When we engage Jewishly we connect to our story and it’s a great story. It’s a story that points beyond the mortal realm and up to the heavens. When we connect Jewishly we become links in a chain that connects us to something beyond ourselves. And we connect not only back in time, but across space also. As the sun set across the world all Klal Yisrael – the community of Israel – prepared for Kol Nidrei and we are all in this together, all aiming at meaning something more than our own mortal existence. We stand with the sinners and the saints, the woodchoppers and the water-carriers, all of us arrayed and aiming beyond our own private possibility. We become a whole greater than the sum of our parts, raging gaily against the dying of the night.
The second way to connect is to love more. If you’ve found a life partner, great, you’ve a fine place to start, but I’m not talking about romantic love. Love means investing more in a relationship – any relationship - than you expect to get out of it. Love is putting someone or something ahead of your own immediate self-interest. You can share love with a stranger, a colleague, a family member. You can share love walking down the road, by coming to Shul any time you volunteer your heart. And this is the miraculous thing about caring so much about someone else that you actually forgo some of your own needs – it makes a difference. It lifts up two isolated individuals and creates a bond greater than either. The Hebrew term I have in mind is Gemilut Hesed, best translated as wanton acts of kindness. The Rabbis suggest, in a phrase that seems only half a joke – that a single act of Gemilut Hesed has equivalent significance to the greatest miracles of our Torah. Connection through love, connection through doing things for other people, casts more light than our own personal endeavours can illumine.
This is how I understand the confrontation with our mortal human condition.
We should acknowledge we are not in charge. And we should respond to that reality with gratitude and live our lives with a sense of limits.
We should acknowledge that our lives become capable of meaning as we connect; as we connect to our Jewish heritage and as we perform acts of Gemilut Hasadim for our fellows.
I’m talking about the very core of what it is to be Jewish; make blessings, keep Shabbat, get to Shul, be a Mentsch. Things we have opportunities to do daily – and especially on the day in the week that is so perfectly attuned to gifting opportunities to be grateful, and stop, and love and connect.
It’s not that Kol Nidrei is the moment we can finally confront our mortal condition, rather the entire apparatus of Jewish law and ethics draw us moment after moment, day after day and week after week into not only the awareness of our mortal condition, but also the way in which to respond to this reality. I’m describing something almost diametrically opposed to Rothko’s confrontational approach. For me the existential endeavour that requires so much conquering; vast canvases displayed with nothing to distract us from their vastness, the right light levels, the right ratio of wall height to canvas size, the very perfect kind of red … it’s all trying to foist something onto us, when we have all the answers inside. ‘It’s not in the heavens … This thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it,’ says the Torah. Maybe rather than going to the Tate in search of being confronted by the realities of the human condition, we should concentrate on making our day-to-day lives the response to the reality of what it means to be human, and Jewish.
We shouldn’t worry so much about the massive grand gestures and concentrate instead on creating a myriad of tiny works of art that give truth to how we see ourselves in this Universe. ‘Remember,’ said my most revered teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘you must build your life as if it were a work of art.’ He meant the very same things I mean tonight; have a sense of something beyond our selves; be grateful, live with a sense of border. And connect; connect to our heritage and connect in love.
Each demonstration of gratitude, each upholding of a border, each point of connection, to our Yiddishkeit and our fellow human beings creates the work of art of our life. The books are still open, as we’ll say tomorrow – v’hotem yad kol adam bo - each of us seal them with our own hand. Seal the books of this coming year with gratitude and limit, in connection to who we are and our fellow human beings, and we will seal them well.
That’s the big picture, I’ll be returning to my theme at Neilah, but also next day and next Shabbat and the next Shabbat and the one after that as well. If you have been at all tempted by what I have had to say do just this one thing – don’t treat this Synagogue, and the truths of this glorious tradition, and even this far less glorious Rabbi as a room at the Tate, to be visited on special occasions only. Because these truths, and our responses to them, are not for special occasions, they are not in heaven. They are here for us week in, week out if only we allow them in. These truths and these responses will illuminate the books of our life in this year to come.
 Yalkut Shimoni Shoftim 8:64