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Seeds of Creation, Justice, and Repentance--Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779

posted Sep 20, 2018, 2:22 PM by Heidi Hoover   [ updated Sep 20, 2018, 2:25 PM ]

Here we are, hineinu, at the beginning of the ten days of repentance. Perhaps you have spent some time over the last month, the month of Elul, preparing yourself for these ten days. Traditionally, the month of Elul is a time of contemplation, of considering what we regret from the past year, and getting ready to atone for it. Perhaps Elul passed you by, but you are here now, wanting and hoping to have a spiritual experience, or wanting and hoping for revelation—to encounter an inspiring or thought-provoking insight, or maybe you are wanting and hoping to recapture a past experience of being in a place like this, for a purpose like this, with a loved one who is not beside you anymore.

Whatever brought you here, I welcome you. This year we are using a machzor, a High Holiday prayerbook, called Mishkan HaNefesh, which translates to Sanctuary of the Soul. It is new to many of you. I find that it has really lovely poetry that is moving and sometimes gives a new perspective to help with our soul-searching. I hope you find that it opens spiritual doors for you.

At the end of December and the beginning of January, I went on a trip to Israel. While there, I had a tour of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. There was an exhibit by the renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. One installation of the exhibit was a large room in which the middle part of the floor was covered, in a rectangle maybe six inches deep, of these: [hold up porcelain sunflower seed]. Can you see what this is? [Most will not.]

Porcelain sunflower seeds by artist Ai Wei Wei
What you cannot see is a sunflower seed. But it’s not just any sunflower seed. It didn’t grow out of a sunflower. Instead, it was made by hand out of porcelain by a Chinese craftswoman. Millions of these made up that art installation. They are exquisite, and each one is different. I have a few here which I’m going to pass around so that you can examine them more closely. I do want these back, please.

I am moved by the use of millions of these individually made seeds. At Rosh Hashanah, we remember the creation of the world—we will read the account of the seven days of creation the day after tomorrow. A seed is the tiny reminder of how we can begin with something very small and grow it into something huge. As Thomas Fuller wrote in his Gnomologia in 1732: “The greatest oaks have been little acorns.” Also, sunflowers that end up taller than we are grow from little seeds like these.

Ai Weiwei, the artist who conceived this project, did not make the seeds himself. Sixteen hundred craftspeople, all from the same town in China, Jingdezhen, made them. As we make our way in the world, we are like the craftspeople, working together with the artist, God, in the ongoing process of creation.

I want to clarify, as I often do, that there are many ways to understand that word God, so I don’t want that word to trip you up as you pray and listen to me talk this High Holiday season. When I speak of God as the artist, that may be to you an abstract process of the cosmos developing and our having a part in it. Alternatively, perhaps you think of an active force or being. Perhaps you think of whatever is in the world that is not yourself. I encourage you to use whatever God-concept works for you.

As we consider our partnership in creation with the God-concept that works for us, I invite you to think about what seeds you’ve planted in the past year. What have you begun to create? Are you growing knowledge, patience, compassion? Are you growing fear, resentment, pain? I find that sometimes seeds of resentment and anger grow quickly, like weeds, fertilized by rumor, suspicion, and mistrust. Seeds of love and compassion can be harder to nurture, especially if the soil is rocky or low in nutrients.

I invite you to consider what you want to nurture and what you want to try to weed out. When we say that God created the world, that means God created all of it—the good and the bad, what we like and what we don’t like. So those parts of ourselves that we might consider weeds—the anger, the resentment, the meanness, to name a few possibilities—also come from God and have their place. A weed is just a plant growing where you don’t want it. So let’s consider carefully—when was our anger justified and when was it misplaced? When did we react to our anger in a healthy way and when did we let it harm us or others?

Even plants that are desirable in most cases may be considered weeds in others. Were there times when we allowed ourselves to be hurt because we were trying to be compassionate to others? Were there times when it would have been appropriate to stand up for ourselves more and take care of other people less?

Let us nurture the seeds of creation that we planted over the past year, and that we will begin to plant during these Days of Awe, so that they grow into plants as big and beautiful as sunflowers. May we work to control the growth of what is less desirable to us. And let us remember that each of the seeds we plant is unique, and ours alone, to care for or to weed out.

When the artist Ai Weiwei began the project of making millions of porcelain sunflower seeds, he decided to have them made, as I mentioned, in Jingdezhen, China. 1600 craftspeople were employed to make them. That is a high enough proportion of the townspeople that everyone knew someone working on the project. Everyone in this town used to make porcelain for the emperor’s court, but now there is little work for them.

Ai Weiwei chose the craftspeople of Jingdezhen because of their skill and the connection to the precious porcelain that was made there. He also chose them in order to bring employment to the town, to give them the dignity that comes with using their skill and being paid for it. This kind of social awareness is important to him, and it is also in line with our Jewish ethics. Maimonides, one of our great sages who lived about 1000 years ago, created a ladder of tzedakah. All tzedakah—giving money to help the poor—is required and valuable, but giving grudgingly is at a lower level than giving willingly, for example. The highest level of tzedakah, according to Maimonides, is giving someone a job at which they can make enough money not to need monetary help anymore. That is precisely what Ai Weiwei did in employing the craftspeople of Jingdezhen. His sunflower seeds are also seeds of justice.

I invite you to consider on this Rosh Hashanah, at the beginning of the 10 days of self-evaluation and repentance: what are the seeds of justice you have planted in the past year, and what seeds of justice do you want to plant in the coming year? Did you attend a protest or contact a politician? To which organizations did you give tzedakah over the past year? Did you have a plan for your tzedakah or did you give as you were moved to? Do you want to do it the same way for the coming year? How much did you help to support this congregation, to help bring it toward financial health? Are you satisfied with what you did over the past year to increase justice in our world? How will you help in the pursuit of justice in the coming year?

We do not all have the ability to give jobs to others. We do have the ability to be ethical in our business dealings, to give tzedakah, to advocate for policies that we believe will contribute to more justice for all of us.

Let us examine our conduct from the past year and atone for times when we haven’t lived up to our own and our tradition’s ideals for justice, and let us do better in the coming year.

When I saw Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds installation in the Israel Museum, a million or more porcelain sunflower seeds placed in an inches-thick carpet dominating the center of the large room, I just wanted to play with them. My fingers ached to touch them. Then the guide pointed out two boxes, one at each entrance to the room, with the sunflower seeds in them for people to play with! I was so excited and loved running my fingers through them, picking them up and examining them. You are having the opportunity to examine individual seeds, but I don’t have enough to really play with them. I wish I did.

The boxes in the museum with the sunflower seeds you could play with were about a foot square, and maybe a quarter or a third full with seeds. Our guide said there used to be a lot more of them in there—people would steal them. Once you’ve had a chance to examine the ones going around the room, maybe you’ll understand the temptation. Please note that mine are NOT stolen from the museum, I bought them in the gift shop.

Then the guide told us something that I found fascinating. At High Holiday time, she said, the seeds start to come back. Museum personnel will find them under benches, and envelopes containing porcelain sunflower seeds will come to the museum. When Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come, some of the people who have stolen seeds feel bad about it and return them.

Of course, it’s not okay to steal from museums—or from anywhere, for that matter. But in this case, there were some people who took that sin, repented, and repaired what they did as much as they could, by returning what they stole. They turned those sunflower seeds into seeds of repentance.

Perhaps there are small things over the past year that we regret. Deeds that are tiny in themselves, like seeds, but that can grow into something much larger. For example, one small lie often requires another, and another, and another, to maintain the first one, growing from a tiny deception into a big one.

I’ve heard that most cases of embezzlement from a company start small, with an employee taking a small amount of money, intending to pay it back later. But then the amount gets larger and larger until the person is caught.

When someone does something wrong and tries to cover it up, whether it’s a child who breaks something and hides it or a politician who breaks the law or has an affair and tries to cover it up, the cover-up is almost invariably worse than the initial wrongdoing.

So what are the actions from the past year that we need to repent and atone for while they are still seeds, before they grow into bigger wrongdoing? What are the things we need to forgive in others before they grow in our minds into resentment that can destroy relationships?

Let us bring back the seeds of wrongdoing that have not yet grown into something bigger, repent and atone for the small things, and forgive the small things, while they are still small.

Has everyone had a chance to check out the Ai Weiwei sunflower seeds? Where are they now? Ushers, would you please collect them and bring them back to me? There are 8 of them.

And now I’d like to pass around these boxes. They, too, have sunflower seeds, but these are natural ones, from actual sunflowers. I’d like to invite each of you, if you choose, to take three of them.

The three seeds I’m inviting you to take represent:

·               A seed of creation

·               A seed of justice

·               A seed of repentance

My invitation to you is to keep these seeds with you tonight and until Tashlich, and think about the following:

·               For the seed of creation—what have you created in the past year that you wish you hadn’t? It could be an object, a feeling, a habit, anything that you’ve started in the past year that you’ve found isn’t good for you, or isn’t good for someone else.

·               For the seed of justice—what opportunity have you missed this past year to plant seeds of justice, to bring more justice into the world? Or what have you done that you regret, that actually contributed to the injustice in the world?

·               For the seed of repentance—what would you like to take back from the coming year, what would you like to be able to reverse? What small things do you want to atone for so that they cannot grow bigger?

Having thought about all this, bring your three seeds with you to Tashlich and throw them away, throwing away with them the guilt that has accumulated around actions you regret from the past year.


·               Consider what your seed of creation will be for the coming year—what do you want to create in your own life for a good year?

·               Consider what your seed of justice will be for the coming year—how will you plant a little more justice in this world to make the coming year better?

·               Consider what your seed of repentance will be for the coming year—what are you repenting of now, during this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that you are committed not to repeat this coming year?

Flowers lean toward the sun, their source of nourishment. Our tradition, including our God—in whatever way we understand that word “God”—is our source for spiritual nourishment. The coming 10 days, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, are our time to face ourselves honestly, to consider what we regret from the past year and what we are grateful for, to re-orient ourselves toward God as the Source of All Being and the Source of our Spiritual Nourishment.

May our self-assessment be fruitful. May we tend our souls, trimming and weeding and nurturing and feeding ourselves so that we grow to be better this year than we were last year: healthier, stronger, kinder, and more just. Amen and Shanah Tovah u’Metukah—may you have a good and a sweet new year.                                                    --Rabbi Heidi Hoover

(Check out this wonderful video about Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds installation, originally at the Tate Modern in London: )