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Cleaning the Schmutz

01/30/2019 12:04:50 PM


This was originally given at Shabbat services on January 12, 2019.  

In the high desert of eastern Washington where I grew up, we regularly had dust storms. Ferocious winds would lift dirt and sand from the ground and blot out the sun from the sky. 

One afternoon, a dust storm came when I was walking home from school.  The sky turned dark with dust, and the strong wind whipped the stinging dirt into my face.

I had to close my eyes to a bare sliver to protect them. Fully open eyes would not have mattered much, because I could not see more than a foot in front of me. Fortunately, I knew the way home.  

When I finally reached the front door to my house and stepped inside, my ears rang from the sudden silence. I had to turn on a light because the windows were still darkened from the storm. 

I stood for a while, listening to the wind slowly die down, and watching the light outside the windows gradually increase.

Then I noticed that wind had blown so hard that it had forced some dust through the tiny space between the window and its frame, coating the sill with a fine layer of dirt. I took a wet paper towel and began to clean all the sills.

I thought about this dust storm when I read the description of the ninth plague on Egypt. The ninth plague was the “plague of darkness.”  It was more than the absence of sunlight (as the medieval commentator Nachmanides pointed out.)  If you look at the Hebrew, it can be understood literally as: “darkness that could be touched.” Darkness caused by physical matter.  Darkness caused by something like a dust storm. 

In the Torah’s story, this “darkness that could be touched” affected only the Egyptians. The Israelites “enjoyed light in their dwellings.”

For me, Temple Israel has always been such a place of light, a shelter from the storm.  It’s a sanctuary.  Something sacred.  To be “sacred” means to be “set apart from the ordinary.”

Within these walls, in this community, we want our actions to reflect the highest ideals of our tradition.  We want to live with kindness, goodness and love.

But like any human organization, we are not perfect. We are all shaped by the values – or lack thereof – of the world outside of these walls.

We live in a time and place in which many of our leaders encourage us to think of ourselves before others, to disparage those who disagree with us, to refuse to acknowledge our mistakes, and to view compromise as a sign of weakness.

The world outside of these walls can influence our actions within these walls.  It’s as if the “dust” -- the schmutz (to use a nice Yiddish word) from the outside world infiltrates our community, like the dust from that long-ago storm.

In this past week, I’ve seen this happen here in a few ways.

I’ve heard from those who strongly believe that this sanctuary should be a place only for those who can sit quietly through an hour of worship. And others who are tearful at the thought that their children would be excluded here.  This is shared sacred space, and that means we must consider the needs of others, and not only our own.  When we do not consider the needs of all who gather in this sanctuary, we are allowing schmutz to come in from the outside. 
And this past week, I had a painful conversation with someone whose heart was broken when she heard that she was criticized by others in this community.  She had converted to Judaism, yet was “not Jewish enough,” or was “no longer Jewish,” whatever that means.  Rendering judgments about others is allowing schmutz to come in from the outside. 

And I’ve seen attempts to assign blame on others when inevitable mistakes are made, or when we are disappointed about something here. Assigning blame when we are angry or disappointed may provide a moment of satisfaction, but if done as a habit, it will ultimately be corrosive.  It’s schmutz from the outside. 

Schmutz has no place in a sacred community. We want to be better than that. That’s what I remind myself when I find myself being intolerant, overly judgmental or assigning blame. I remind myself that I want to be better than that.
 My beloved friends, I have faith in this community and in the people in it. I know that we can do better.  I’ve seen it happen.

When we see the schmutz from the outside world affect how we act within these walls, we can say:  Who needs this schmutz? And we can wipe it up.

In this way, we can escape the plague of darkness and enjoy light in this place, our most sacred of dwellings. 


Tue, June 2 2020 10 Sivan 5780