The pot and the potter

The pot and the potter

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman

Noach, Genesis 6:9-11:32

When I attended Rodef Shalom as a child, I remember sitting in the balcony and gazing at the vaulted ceilings and the people in the pews below while listening to basso stirrings of the Kol Nidre.  I was terrified by the thought that I faced that night an insurmountable task: to defeat the evil lurking within me that was the cause of some of the meanness and inattention of my soul for the year past.

Yom Kippur has always cast the fear and trembling that — nebech — I didn’t get right this past year; how could I ever get it right next year?  There is so much perfectionist language in the act of teshuvah, the return to God’s goodly intention for us, that when it comes to Yom Kippur, we fall all over God with pleas for a father’s mercy and forgiveness.

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, we read that God decides to destroy the world with a flood because “every plan devised by man’s inclination (yetzer machshevot libo) was nothing but evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5)  God brings the flood in this week’s portion and destroys the world.  Afterward God decries, “never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the inclinations of man’s mind  (yetzer ha-lev ha adam) are evil from his youth.”  (Genesis 8:21)

First, God says that the man’s inclinations are a reason to destroy the world.  Then God says that man’s inclinations are not a reason to destroy the world.  How are we able to resolve the contradiction?  

I believe that the answer to the question is found in what happens to the soul in the Yom Kippur/post-Yom Kippur shift.  We go from being angels bound for perfection to coming into a reality where we must make peace with our imperfection.  

The answer is beautifully illustrated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the “Koren Machzor” in his commentary to the plaintive piyyut “Clay in the Hand of the Potter.”  In the piyyut, we beseech God that He is our Maker and we are the Material so “look to the covenant and disregard our inclination for evil” (Yetzer Ha-Ra).  Sacks writes that it is a great example of hutzpa in our culture, even in prayer.  It is based on Isaiah’s words:

Yet You, Lord, are our Father

We are the clay, You are our Potter (Yotzrenu);

We are the work of Your hand.

Do not be angry beyond measure

Do not remember our sins forever.

 (Isaiah 64:7-8).

According to the Midrash (Shemot Rabba 46:4), if a potter makes a pot and leaves a pebble in it, when it comes out of the furnace it will leak from the hole left by the pebble and lose the liquid poured into it.  Who caused the pot to leak and lose its liquid?  It was the potter who left the pebble in the jar as it was being made.

When God chooses to bring the flood in the Noah story, God does so with a frustration that man cannot be perfect because of his terrible inclination.  God wipes the earth away and leaves only Noah and his family.  God regrets his decision and has hope in Noah although Noah is the same pot only with fewer leaks.  “How can I punish them for their being a pot when I am the potter!” God seems to say to himself when God expresses regret.  “That is not a reason to destroy the world!”   The word for “potter” (Yotzer) is the same word for the “inclination for evil.” (Yetzer) Herein is the continuum from our Yom Kippur pledge for perfection and defeat of this yetzer to the days that follow when we live despite the yetzer. We will continue to mistreat; we will continue to show our anger; we will continue to make mistakes based on our inattention.  We are pots after all and God is the potter.

And our pots do have cracks and holes in them despite our best efforts to patch them up.  So we continue tending to our cracks and holes and take comfort in God who keeps us a valuable part of his universe.  God learns in the post flood world that it is not our inclination for evil that makes us remarkable.  It is really our soul’s capacity for good.  We are clay not fire; we are mortals not angels.  

Let us take comfort in our imperfections and not be hard on ourselves.  Remember that next year on Yom Kippur we will say that “we are not righteous and have not sinned,” for we will still remain imperfect.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)