Stop me if you've heard this one before.
Michelangelo, an Israeli poet and a German photographer walk into Rosh Hashanah services ...
The Accademia Gallery is located in Florence, Italy. Founded in 1563 by the Medici family, it is perhaps best known for housing one of the the famous Michelangelo sculpture, David. In 1873, Michelangelo's majestic work was moved to the Accademia where it stands today. The statue is as beautiful as it is imposing: Standing at 17 feet tall, David's glaring eyes stare south toward Rome. Given the tale of David and Goliath, the statue came to represent Florence's attempt to protect its small, democratic city-state from its larger, neighboring rivals.
Michelangelo's depiction is different from other artistic portrayals of David. Donatello included Golaith's slain head at David's feet, highlighting the victory of the weak over the strong ... the small over the mighty ... the righteous over the wicked. But Michelangelo's David does not portray the giant Goliath - it focuses only on David. The famous sculpture of David that stands in the Accademia Gallery is unique: Instead of seeing David's victory, an onlooker senses David's fear, uncertainty and vulnerability.
Etched in the sculpture's face are lines denoting tension and anxiety. It seems that Michelangelo wanted to purposefully capture David before his battle with Goliath. We imagine David preparing himself for battle, calming his mind and looking toward the conflict ahead. David has made the decision to fight the mighty giant. But Michelangelo's statue shows us a David that is caught between two very important moments - the decision to fight Goliath on the one hand, and the decisive moment of victory on the other.
Looking upward at this Goliath of a statue, I can imagine an onlooker thinking about the emotions swirling in David's head while being inspired at David's courage, as the nascent king reminds us to speak truth to power .. as he reminds us to stand up to the giants of injustice and cruelty ... as he reminds us of the ongoing struggle between good and evil, blessing and curse.
In addition to these thoughts, there is something else. Michaelangelo's sculpture perfectly encapsulates a watershed moment. It is the moment that exists at the crossroads between intention and action. David makes the choice to fight Goliath, but we see him before the action of battle. We make the choice to do better, to be better ... and we are at the beginning of the New Year - ready to do action - and we look toward our uncertain future ... us too hoping for the victory of being written into the Book of Life.
Some of you may have heard of Yehuda Amichai. Amichai was an Israeli poet, and considered by many to be one of the country's greatest cultural treasures. He wrote a poem entitled Tourists. Here is translation of part of the poem:
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. 'You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.' 'But he’s moving, he’s moving!'
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.
Amichai suggests that tourists should expand their gaze. We travel to places filled with history and tradition. We take out our cameras and iPhones and snap pictures, excited to see treasured antiquities and ancient monuments. But we can enlarge our focus. In addition to looking at works of art, archaeological artifacts and historical riches, we can also look at the people that surround the Roman arch, the Eiffel Tower, Times Square, Turner Field ... We can look at each other.
Thomas Struth is a German photographer. In 2004 he participated in a special project commemorating the 500th anniversary of a specific famous work of ark. He installed a hidden camera on the celebrated piece. Rather than take beautiful photographs of the famous artwork, he instead captured the museum-goers and their expressions by taking pictures of them! Struth's exhibit is named Audiences. His images capture the museum goers ... the tourists. The exhibit makes us think about the definition of art and meaning. Looking at one of these images, one gazes at people gazing at art. Struth shows us that the artistry is not only the exhibit that was painstakingly put together by a museum curator. The Audience is also the exhibit.
Audiences was commisioned by the Accademia gallery to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Michaelangelo's David.
As we begin this new year, we have made commitments. We have reflected on our actions and habits. We have gone through the month of Elul resolving to do t'suvah, turning toward the best parts of ourselves. We eat apples and honey to begin a sweet new year. But like Michaelangelo's David, we do not know what the future holds. The Book of Life is closed to us; we are not afforded a glimpse inside to see the divine ink that lines its metaphorical pages. We are on the same precipice as David: We stand between conscious, deliberate choice on one hand, and the results of that choice on the other. We find ourselves in a liminal space between our present selves and our desired future selves. And like Michaelangelo's famous depiction, this moment tonight finds us caught between hope and fear, courage and uncertainty. Because even as we approach each other with hugs and greetings of L'shanah Tovah, there is some trepidation. We have questions. Will it be a good year? Will I be written into the Book of Life? Will I have more blessing this year? will there be less pain?
We come to services looking for inspiration. We look to our liturgy, our choir, if you haven't fallen asleep yet, the words of this sermon. And we look at the Torah.
As you listen to me this very moment, your eyes face the Torah. When we take the Torah out of the ark, our gaze remains transfixed on it. As we do a hakafah and parade the Torah around the sanctuary, our bodies turn uniformly like a slow-moving carousel, as our eyes follow the Torah's path around the sanctuary.
Thomas Struth's photographs remind us that beautiful things should not only be observed. They are experienced. They look back at us.
All of this boils down to one single sentence: We look at the Torah so that we might better look at ourselves.
Struth's celebration of Michaelangelo's David reminds us that the important pieces in the museum are not the works of antiquity and treasure. The most important pieces in the museum are the visitors looking at the curated pieces.
Similarly, the Torah is not our most prized possession. We are. We need the Torah because its five books remind us to look at each other. It reminds us to learn together, pray together, argue and debate, laugh, mourn, celebrate ... It teaches us how to to be a Congregation Children of Israel. When we walk the Torah around the synagogue, yes we look at the Torah ... but as our gaze moves circularly, following the Torah's path, we also lock eyes with each other.
Tonight, we look toward this bima and this ark in order to gain inspiration as we move from our conscious commitments into the uncertain future that lies ahead. As we hear the shofar blasts tomorrow, let us remember that the Torah reflects our gaze back at us. The Torah is not our history - it is our story. It is us.
I will finish by paraphrasing Amichai's poem about tourists: Look at the Torah in the ark over there. It's holds the source of wisdom and inspiration for the Jewish people. It teaches us how to celebrate holidays and think about God and act in our day-to-day lives. But that's not the most important thing. Look behind it. There are hundreds of congregants looking at it. We will be written into the Book of Life only when we turn toward each other, teaching eachother Torah, and then walking together into our uncertain, but blessed future.