Sermon: Ki Teitzei – A Bag of Nails

Parashat Ki Teitzei
August 16, 2013
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi David Lipper

The countdown continues.  Now, 11 days into the month of Elul, we can sense the arrival of the Holy Days.  Maybe it’s the beginning of the change from summer to fall; maybe it’s the start of a new school year, kids off to college.  The New Year is looming large.  I have never found myself in a year where I am completely ready for the Holy Days.  They always seem too early or too late.  This is indeed the earliest I can remember.  So we have to ramp up this year, in a way we haven’t had to do in years past.  And while we may be preparing for our last weekend getaway, we have to prepare for our entry through the gates … into a New Year … a new time … a new relationship.  

This is a favorite story of mine.  As I have been totally focused on the impending arrival of the Holy Days, I thought that this would be a good time to share it.  There are messages upon messages here.  I hope that it resonates within you to here this.  

There once was a little girl who had a very bad temper.  It often got her into trouble.  She would stomp and yell and often fall into irrational behavior.  Her mother was very frustrated by the behavior of her once sweet little girl.   So as many parents do when faced with unruly children, she sought advice from friends and professionals on how to break this cycle of behavior.  And wouldn’t you know, she spoke to her rabbi and he gave her this solution.

It was a quiet day when the door slammed and the little girl stomped in.  She was yelling as she entered the house and cursing all of her friends.  When she saw her mother, her venom turned to her and she became the target of rage.  The mother remembering the rabbis advice, held up her hand, quieted her daughter and sat her in the living room.  She then went into the garage and returned with a small bag of nails and a hammer.   She then told her daughter that every time she lost her temper or insulted somebody she must hammer a nail into the back of their fence.

The first day the girl hit 14 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as she learned to control her anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled. She discovered it was easier to hold her temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally the day came when the girl didn’t lose her temper at all. She told her mother about it, and the mother suggested that the girl now pull out one nail for each day that she was able to hold her temper. The days passed. Finally, she told her mother that all the nails were gone.

The mother took her daughter by the hand and led her to the fence. She said, “You have done well, my daughter, but look at all the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like these.”  

“How can I repair the fence?” asked the girl. “Will it have to remain damaged forever?”   

“Yes and no,” said the mother. “           

Our Rabbis say that if the fence is alive and responds to the way you have changed, it too can change and heal itself. If the fence is dead to the possibility of your repentance it will carry its scars onward. The fence will never be as it was before, but it doesn’t have to become like new to be a good fence. If you do your part and change, and the fence does its part in response, God will do something wonderful. God will promote a healing that will make you and the fence better. This process is called atonement. It means that the changes that come about from repentance and forgiveness lead people to higher levels of relationship than was the case before.”

“What happens if the fence doesn’t respond?” asked the girl. “Can I ever make it whole?”  “You should try on three different occasions,” said the mother, “but if the fence remains damaged even after you have changed, you can’t force it to become whole. In that case you should fix another fence somewhere else. There are always lots of fences that need fixing, and whenever you fix a fence, God will make something wonderful happen. That is the miracle of atonement. God always responds to our attempts to change by helping us change, and always responds to our change by giving us new and wonderful opportunities for atonement. This is why we have a Day of Atonement at the beginning of every New Year; so the New Year will be a better one than the last one.”

And so the teaching of this rabbi became a legend in its own right.  The young girl was changed forever as she learned the impact her outbursts had caused.  She learned that as she became more in control of her emotions, her behaviors and her relationships, her life took on greater meaning and her happiness and wellness improved.   And shalom entered her family home and life reclaimed its flow.

As we prepare for the arrival of the Holy Days, may each of us pull the nails from our own fences and begin the process of mending and repairing.  

Shabbat Shalom