Yom Kippur Evening (Kol Nidre) Sermon 5772/2011

Stuff (sermon for Kol Nidre/ Yom Kippur Eve 5772/2011)

Tonight I thought I would talk about חומר / chomer“Chomer” is a very evocative Hebrew word that can be translated in a number of ways.  Among the possible English synonyms are:  “clay,” “stuff,” “matter,” or “material.”  Related words include “chumra” (“stringency”), “chomra” (“hardware”), and “chomranut” (“materialism”).

I’m sure you remember the chorus of the song that Madonna recorded back in the mid-1980’s and that made her a star  – “We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl”  

I guess if Madonna or anyone else ever recorded it in Hebrew, that chorus would go something like ---

אנחנו גרים בעולם חומרני, ואני ילדה חומרנית;

אנחנו גרים בעולם חומרני, ואני ילדה חומרנית.

(Anachnu garim b’olam chomrani, va’ani yaldah chomranit,

Anachnu garim b’olam chomrani, va’ani yaldah chomranit…)

Whenever anyone composes a dvar torah or sermon, the Torah verse or classical text commented upon is called חומר לדרוש (chomer lidrosh) – which is to say, “chomer” out of which we make a “midrash.”

My חומר לדרוש (chomer lidrosh) for tonight is itself about chomer.  For we read in the Yom Kippur liturgy  -- actually we all sang this just a few minutes ago as well:

Ki hiney ka-chomer b’yad ha-yotzer,

Birtzoto marchiv

Uvirtzoto m’katzer.

Keyn anachnu v’yadekha, chesed notzeyr,

Labrit habeyt, v’al teyfen layetzer.

Our new machzor, On Wings of Awe, on p. 298, translates these words of medieval Hebrew poetry as follows:

“Like clay (“chomer”) in the hand of the sculptor.

At whose will it can stretch or contract,

So are we in Your hand,

Whose love for us shapes every act.

Look to the Covenant, turn away from our sin

Actually, there is a neat wordplay in the Hebrew that doesn’t come across in this English translation:  The word “yotzer” (יוצר) is translated here as sculptor, or, in many older translations, as “potter”.  But the literal meaning of “yotzer” is “creator” or “form-er” [in the sense of “one who forms something” not in the sense of “previous”].”  The first prayer after the Barechu/Call to Prayer in the daily shacharit liturgy praises God, in words taken from Isaiah 45:7 as יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ   “Yotzer Or u’vorey choshekh,” (“the One who forms light and creates darkness”).

And the phrase “v’al tefen layetzer” – which our machzor renders as “turn away from our sin” – literally means “don’t face our yetzer.”  “Yetzer” (יצר) refers to a drive or impulse that is inherent in being alive. Jewish tradition teaches that each of has a “yetzer ha-tov” (“a good inclination”) and a “yetzer hara” (“an evil inclination”) within us, but that both are part of what it means to be human.  So, the piyyut is implicitly making the connection right from the start between “hayotzer” – God, the creator, the sculptor, the potter, the artist and “hayetzer”  -- the impulse or inclination that can lead us to sin, but that can also be redirected and brought around to serve the holy, as is taught in a classic midrash from the (5th century?) collection Bereshit Rabba

“Nahman said in R. Samuel's name: BEHOLD, IT WAS VERY GOOD וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד   (Gen. 1:31) refers to the yetzer hatov (the impulse for good); and BEHOLD, IT WAS VERY GOOD, [also refers] to the yetzer hara (the impulse for evil).  Can then the yetzer hara be very good? That would be extraordinary! But were it not for the yetzer hara, however, no one would build a house, marry and beget children; and thus said Solomon (in Ecclesiastes 4:4) “Again, I considered all labor and all excelling in work, that it is a person's rivalry with their neighbor”  (Bereshit Rabba 9:7)


I think this is an important Jewish concept when we consider the general topic of sin.  We don’t accomplish anything and we’re not being true to ourselves if we simply try to repress and deny natural drives in ourselves that lead us to sinful behavior or impure thought.  Rather, the challenge is to refocus those drives, to rechannel them so that we harness that energy to good and productive purposes.

Returning to the 12th century piyyut “ki hiney kachomer”  it is generally thought that these anonymous words in our machzor were inspired by the words of Jeremiah 18: 3-6  -


ג וָאֵרֵד, בֵּית הַיּוֹצֵר; והנהו (וְהִנֵּה-הוּא) עֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, עַל-הָאָבְנָיִם.

3 Then I went down to the potter's house, and, behold, he was at his work on the wheels.

ד וְנִשְׁחַת הַכְּלִי, אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה בַּחֹמֶר--בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר; וְשָׁב, וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ כְּלִי אַחֵר, כַּאֲשֶׁר יָשַׁר בְּעֵינֵי הַיּוֹצֵר, לַעֲשׂוֹת. {ס}

4 And whenever the vessel that he made of the clay was marred in the hand of the potter, he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. {S}

ה וַיְהִי דְבַר-יְהוָה, אֵלַי לֵאמוֹר.

5 Then the word of the ETERNAL came to me, saying:

ו הֲכַיּוֹצֵר הַזֶּה לֹא-אוּכַל לַעֲשׂוֹת לָכֶם, בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל--נְאֻם-יְהוָה; הִנֵּה כַחֹמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר, כֵּן-אַתֶּם בְּיָדִי בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל. {ס}

6 'O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? says the ETERNAL Behold, as the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. {S}


Similarly, we find in Isaiah 64:7 –



ז וְעַתָּה יְהוָה, אָבִינוּ אָתָּה; אֲנַחְנוּ הַחֹמֶר וְאַתָּה יֹצְרֵנוּ, וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדְךָ כֻּלָּנוּ.

7 But now, ADONAI, You are our Parent; we are the clay, and You our potter, and we all are the work of Your hand.

These Biblical and Medieval passages contain a poignant though potentially troubling message:  They assert that our fates, as material creatures in this material world, are utterly dependent on the external forces brought to bear upon us by היוצר (“Hayotzer”) – by the Creator.  But, if that is the case, what about free will?  What possible meaning or justice could there be in concepts of good and evil, or reward and punishment, if we are merely clay in the hands of the potter --- shaped by outside factors.

Let us try to respond to this theological concern.  First, let’s consider the case of Hayotzer – the potter.  The potter is not just an impersonal force.  The potter is an artist.  An artist seeking to create a thing of beauty.  And, as Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, in her commentary to Ki Hiney Hachomer in the Kol Haneshama Recontructionist Machzor (p. 802), observes:  “[I]f we think of God as helping to make our lives a thing of beauty, we may joyfully offer the raw material that is ourselves to God.” 

According to the 13th –century commentator Abraham ben Azriel, thinking of God as an artist and ourselves as works of art can give us confidence and faith.  He writes:  “all artisans feel compassionately toward their artwork which they would not want to destroy. […] An artist, for example, constantly adds to the beauty of the art, and would never do anything to break it.” (quoted in Lawrence Hoffman, Gates of Understanding 2, CCAR Press, 1984, p. 135).

In the weeks before Yom Kippur a few years ago, in order to try to get a better feel for this metaphor of God as Potter and people as clay, I contacted my friend Alyssa.  Though it’s not her “day job,”  Alyssa has for many years pursued an avocation as a potter. 

In an e-mail message at that time, I had asked Alyssa how she felt about the clay that she molds.  What’s her spiritual, physical or emotional relationship to it?  How does the experience of working with clay affect how she lives her life in other spheres of her existence?

This was her response:

“Hi David, This is really interesting…  There are various methods in which one can mold clay.  My tool of choice is my hands and the wheel.  As I “throw a pot” I feel:


  • Complete control as I have the ability to move the clay into the shape I want.         
  • [I feel] [a]bsolutely no control as the wheel moves the clay and I just keep my hands steady.
  • [and I feel] [b]ound by the laws of clay.  Even though I create the shape, I have to follow the basic concepts of throwing. Such as center the clay first, drill the center and open the walls.

“My relationship with the process is more physical for me, but I’m sure it’s different for everyone.  As I am not a spiritual person, it can be more emotional than anything.  The reason I’m able to spend so much time doing this is because it has gotten to the point that it’s innate.  I don’t have to really concentrate on the fundamentals anymore.  I obviously have to do the fundamentals, but I’m not focusing on it.  It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to create from scratch, all by myself, and it turns into something I’m proud of.  It may not come out to be exactly what I intended it to be, but I’m proud of it nonetheless.

“Working with clay is a vice for me.  It’s always fun to do something you’re good at.  It gives me confidence to try other things. This little seed of confidence somehow shines through in other areas of my life.  I lean on it.

“Well David…  I hope this helps.  I didn’t even know I thought this way until you asked.”

Although Alyssa describes herself as “not a spiritual person,” I think that she makes an important spiritual point nonetheless.  She writes that from a certain point of view she has “absolute control” in shaping the clay.  That’s like the image of God as potter in the poem “Ki Hiney Hachomer.”  But she also acknowledges that there are limits to her power – she is not in control when the wheel takes over and she keeps her hands steady.  And she is “bound by the laws of clay” and by the “basic concepts of throwing.”

And so it is with God.  We wonder – why does God let bad things happen?  How can God allow evil and sickness to exist in the world?  And one answer seems to be that, just as the potter is bound by the laws of clay, so is God, as it were,  bound by the laws of the universe – even if we may understand God as having willingly bound God’s self to those laws, a process the kabbalists call “tzimtzum”/ “contraction.”

So even if we have faith in God as the ultimate Creator and Author, the “Yotzer,” of the universe – Once that universe is set into motion, the laws of materiality, of “chomranut,” come into force.  And just when it seems that God is most absent from the life of the world – THAT is the very moment when God, as it were, is keeping Her hands steady on the potter’s wheel.

Most of us are not potters ourselves – but there are certainly many ways in which we have exercised comparable functions:  Parents help to mold and shape their children – passing on their own values and experiences to them, then stepping back to let their children come into their own, secure in the knowledge that their parents continue to provide a steady and supportive presence – that their parents’ hands, so to speak, are still keeping the pottery wheel steady.

The same is true for the influence of teachers upon students.  And I certainly experience this in my relationship as rabbi to congregants.  And, in very real ways, we all, at various times in our lives, help shape other people’s values and worldviews through the examples we set by our own behavior.

In all these situations, we know that our influence on those who look to us for guidance is significant.  Therefore, we strive to be responsible and conscientious.  And on Yom Kippur we search deep within our hearts to repent for those ways in which we have not been as responsible or as conscientious as we ought to have been in the past year.

But we also know that our own insights and abilities are imperfect – for God’s artistry is beyond that of any earthly potter, sculptor, mason, blacksmith or glazier --   beyond any earthly parent, teacher or rabbi – beyond that of any human being.

And, conversely, we know that we who receive guidance from others – in other words, every one of us – do still have free wills of our own.  We may be Ka-chomer/ Like clay (the Hebrew prefix ka in the work kachomer means “like” or “as”) – but that’s a metaphor (or, I guess, technically, a simile), not a statement of identity.  In some ways we are like clay, but, in fact, we are more than clay.

Do you remember the opening words of the song “Anatevka” in “Fiddler on the Roof?”  “A little bit of this, a little bit of that…”  That’s us.  On the one hand, we DO have free will.  We ARE free to choose how will conduct ourselves in life.  Whether we will follow our good inclination, our “yetzer hatov” or our evil inclination, our “yetzer hara.”  And, as we learn in Pirke Avot (4:1)

“Who is mighty? One who controls one’s natural urges (one’s “yetzer”), as it is said, “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty and one who rules one’s spirit than one who conquers a city.” (Prov. 16:32)

But, on the other hand, we ARE affected by forces beyond our control.  We ARE products of the circumstances in which we have been raised.

The key is to find a proper balance between these two poles.  As individuals, we should always strive to reach beyond our preconceived limitations.  Not to accept the status quo but, rather, to be continually reaching for more holiness, more meaning, more life.  Yet, at the same time, we should always be gentle with ourselves, accepting that we DO ultimately have limitations and that we are, ultimately, mortal.  Indeed, we are living in a material world and we are material girls – and boys and men and women.

But we are also the material, the stuff, the chomer, from which a divine creation of beauty is being fashioned.  May we recognize that beauty in ourselves, in our fellow human beings, and in our world.  And where that beauty remains only potential beauty – where hatred, poverty, ignorance and injustice keep that beauty bottled up and unrealized – let us work as partners with היוצר (Hayotzer) – with the Creator of us all – to materialize it.

גמר חתימה טובה וצום קל (Gmar chatimah tovah v’tzom kal) / May you have  a good sealing in the Book of Life and an easy fast.  Shabbat Shalom.


(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5772/2011

Posted on October 11, 2011 .