Stories for a Clean Slate (Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5784, September 15, 2023)
Stories for a Clean Slate
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5784
Temple B’nai Shalom
Rabbi David S. Widzer
Did you know that many of our Religious School classrooms have on their walls actual chalkboards? I realized that last weekend when I was teaching Confirmation Class. Do you know how rare that it? You might remember from your years in school the black or green slate boards, the thin cylinders of white chalk, the felt erasers, the dust that seemed to coat everything in a five-foot radius. But if you visit most schools around the area, you’ll find bulletin boards for posting information, white-boards for dry-erase markers, smart-boards that function like interactive computer touch screens, but very few chalkboards.
This makes me wonder, and even worry, for the phrases “wipe the slate clean” or “starting with a clean slate.” With the paucity of chalkboards, I suspect that fewer and fewer people today have first-hand knowledge of the metaphor. And yet that is the image we use on the High Holy Days. At this season of renewal, we say we start fresh, as if brand new, in this new year of life. We have wiped the slate clean, we begin again with a clean slate.
That’s what we say, but how do we do actually do this? Don’t we each have all kinds of stuff from last year, actions we did, things we thought, emotions we felt? What do we do with all of it when we want to come into a new year? How do we deal with our baggage from the past, in order to begin the new year?
I’ll share with you tonight three short stories that illustrate different tools we might use to address our issues from the last year, to unpack the baggage we have accumulated, to deal with our past, so that we can move forward into the future.
The first story is based on a version of a classic tale by Rabbi Allen S. Maller.  There once was a girl who was prone to following her yetzer hara, her inclination to do the wrong thing. She lost her temper quite often with other people. She said mean words and did mean things and did not treat people very nicely. To help her overcome this, her mother took her outside to the wooden fence in the backyard. She gave the girl a hammer and a bag of nails. Every time that the girl lost her temper or insulted someone or hurt someone’s feelings, she must hammer a nail into the fence.
The first week, she put 27 nails into that fence. It was hard work to do all that hammering! The girl soon came to realize that it was easier to control her actions than to hammer in more nails. And she learned how to stop saying mean words, and stop doing mean things, and treat people nicely and kindly instead. As the weeks went by, the number of nails she had to hammer each day gradually dwindled. Finally, the day came when the girl didn’t have to put any nails in to the fence. She told her mother, who suggested that now the girl pull out one nail for each day that she was able to control her actions so successfully. Days and weeks passed. Each day the girl removed one more nail. At last, she told her mother that all the nails were gone.
Together, mother and daughter went to examine the fence. No nails jutted out from its wooden boards. It still functioned as a fence, but the wood was pockmarked by the holes where the nails had been. Some of the older holes were even stained by rust and the wear-and-tear of the past several months. The girl realized that, though she had been acting like a mentsch and removing the nails, her previous behavior had left quite a mark. The holes from the nails meant that the fence would never be the same. Her mother noted, “When you act unkindly towards another person, it will leave a scar, just like those nails. You can say ‘I’m sorry,’ but the wound is still there.”
“So how can I fix it?” asked the girl. “Will it remain damaged forever?”
“You can get some paint and some putty,” her mother said, “and fill in and paint over the holes. That would go some way towards repairing it, though the fence will never quite be as it was before. But it doesn’t have to be perfect and new to be a good fence. You know that we can hurt other people by our actions. In the same way, our actions can repair those relationships. They’re never quite the same as before the hurt happened, but they can be good relationships in our lives, all the same.”
The girl nodded and understood. She got some paint and putty and did what she could to fix the holes. And she approached the people that she had hurt and did what she could to fix the holes. And she ended up with a pretty good fence, and some pretty good friends, and a very smart mom.
Like the girl in the story, we know that our words and our deeds have consequences. Better than leaving those nails in the fences, at this time of year, we try to remove them and patch things up. The relationships that we’ll have with the people we’ve hurt might not be quite the same as they were before, but they can still be good.
Think about the holes you’ve created in relationships during the past year. How might you take some time during these 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur to patch them up?
The “patching up” of relationship is a form of repentance, teshuvah, and it is one of the things we can do to prepare for the new year. With teshuvah, we seek to repair what we have done that has hurt another person. Judaism teaches, “For transgressions between one human being and another, Yom Kippur cannot atone for them until they have made peace with one another.”  Attempting to make right what we have done wrong is one way to deal with our baggage from the past year in preparing for the new.
The second story for tonight is a classic Buddhist tale. Two monks are walking silently along a country path on a long journey. They come to a muddy, rolling river, swollen with water from the spring rains. As they prepare to make the difficult crossing, a caravan approaches, with a group of attendants carrying their wealthy and not-so-kind mistress and all her possessions. There is a lot of yelling from the woman – her beautiful silk robe will be ruined if it goes in the water! She cannot abide getting wet! Her expensive packages must not be damaged! They must hurry and get everything across before she is late for her appointment!
The servants don’t know what to do. They cannot cross the raging river carrying both the packages and their mistress at the same time. They must put down one or the other but cannot do that without something getting wet and incurring her wrath. And it is difficult to think of a solution when she is yelling so loudly.
The younger monk observes the scene but does nothing. The elder monk, however, approaches the caravan. He volunteers to carry the woman across the river on his back, allowing the attendants to carry her things. The woman climbs onto the elder monk’s back and they cross the river. She complains the entire time, yelling about the water, the mud, her robe. When they reach the other side, the elderly monk gently puts her down. She rudely pushes him aside to return to her sedan chair and huffs off without thanking him. The caravan departs and the monks continue their journey in silence.
The younger monk walks on, brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, he is unable to stay silent any longer. “I cannot believe that old woman!” he says to the elder monk. “She was so selfish! You kindly carried her across the muddy river, on your back even, and not only did she not offer thanks, she actually was quite rude to you!”
The older monk calmly and quietly turned to his younger colleague, and offered this observation: “I set the women down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
We all carry things with us for much longer than we should. For some of us, we carry regret, wistfully wishing we had never done X or never said Y. We might have tried to apologize, tried to make right what we did wrong. Perhaps we were forgiven, perhaps not. But still we carry with us the after-affects, long after we probably should have let them go. For others of us, what we carry too long is resentment. Despite the Torah’s warning not to bear a grudge, we can’t put down the pain that was caused to us. We find it hard to forgive. So, instead, we carry it with us, a burden that weighs us down.
Take a second now to think. What are you still carrying? What can you put down? How can this help you prepare to enter the new year?
The story of the monks teaches the benefits of letting things go. The younger monk carried his resentment of the woman far longer than the elder monk had carried her physically. This is a second tool for us, in figuring out how to address the issues of the past to prepare for the future. We can learn how to put down whatever it is that we are carrying, so we may enter the new year with open arms.
The third story tonight is a true one, and it comes from one of the summers that I served as a rabbi on faculty at one of the Reform movement’s camps. Most nights, after a full day of activities, the different units have a brief creative evening service, centered around the basic prayers of our liturgy. Most of the service is sung, with a staff member leading the singing, usually with guitar. One particular night, I was with the 6th grade unit, sitting on an outdoor basketball court as the sun was setting. The songleader that night was a Counselor-In-Training, a young 17 or 18 year old kid, whose unsteady guitar skills and inexperience in leading were far surpassed by her enthusiasm and earnest intent. The melody we used in singing the Barechu began with a “la-la” tune. We made our way through the sections of the service and came to the Mi Chamocha. This version also started with a “la-la” section, albeit a different one. But, though she played the correct chords for Mi Chamocha la-la, what came out of the songleader’s mouth was the melody for the Barechu la-la. It had gotten stuck in her head and she couldn’t get it out. It sounded off, and she knew it was wrong.
In those circumstances, when you are leading 100 kids, and you are, plain and simple, leading them the wrong way, I suspect some of us would have gotten horribly embarrassed. We might have been so flustered we might have stopped singing abruptly, or made some exclamation, or even burst into tears and run away. But this teenage songleader did none of that. When the la-la section finished, she calmly looked at the group and said something like, “Well, that wasn’t the right one. And I can’t remember how it goes. Can someone help me?” One or two of the counselors near the front of the group started singing the correct la-la. The songleader picked up the melody, matched the chords, and led us into the right Mi Chamocha and the remainder of the service.
I was amazed. In similar situations, I have seen songleaders with greater experience get much more overwhelmed and have a hard time recovering. But not this young woman. She wasn’t embarrassed or flustered. She knew she had made a mistake. She had tried to lead this particular melody but had missed the mark. She recognized it, acknowledged it before the group, and asked the community for help. At the end of the service, she even called attention to it by expressing her thanks to the people who had helped her and pointing out what a great community camp is, that people can make mistakes and learn from them in such a supportive environment.
Another great tool for us! We all make mistakes. We all aim for something and miss. Sometimes we want to hide from these mistakes, just crawl under a rock and pretend they didn’t happen. We can be ashamed or flustered or embarrassed, we can even try to run away. Or, we can acknowledge those mistakes. We can name them. And we can ask for help with them. We turn to our friends, our family, our community, and seek their support. The mistakes from our past, the ones we want NOT to carry with us into the new year, can be dealt with by calmly confronting them, and by asking for help.
Take a second. Were there times this past year when your reaction to a mistake was shame or embarrassment? How might you have called on friends, family, and the broader community to help in those instances, to right what went wrong?
We all want to begin the new year with that proverbial clean slate. Rosh HaShannah is the time for starting over again, a time of return, a time of renewal. That isn’t always easy to do, for we know the days of the past year have had their share of hurt, wrongdoing, or mistakes, inflicted upon us by others, or by us upon others, or caused by our actions. We can’t begin again until we address what has been.
And so we reach out to those we have hurt and try to patch things up. Like the girl with the fence, we repair, as best we can, the harm we have done, and hope that, though the relationship might not be as good as new, it is good enough. We let go of pieces of the past that we need carry no longer, regret or resentment. Like the elder monk, we put down remorse or grudges. And we acknowledge our mistakes, refusing to let emotions like embarrassment preclude us from correcting what we did wrong. Like the songleader, we reach out for help, knowing that our community will be there to support us.
May these efforts bring us to a time of renewal.
May we use these tools in the coming days
to find the right ways to end one year and begin again.
May God grant that the year ahead
be a sweet, good, happy, and healthy, one for us all.
 There are many popular versions of this story. Rabbi Allen S. Maler’s version can be found at http://www.spiritual-short-stories.com/spiritual-short-story-934-+Repentance,+Atonement,+and+Nails.html.
 Mishnah Yoma 8:9.
 http://spiritsinharmony.blogspot.com/2008/02/two-monks-carry-woman.html has several different versions of this classic story.
 Leviticus 19:18.