The Holiness of Glass Blowing – Part 1 –Be Alone, Be Powerful, Be Shaped©

The Holiness of Glass Blowing – Part 1 –Be Alone, Be Powerful, Be Shaped©
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
Kol Nidre 5776/2015

This is the holiest night of the year, and so the question I’m about to ask to begin my sermon tonight may seem strange....but have you ever made anything out of glass?  

I want to tell you about an experience I had this summer, when I, a very inartistic person, made something out of glass that I now place in my cabinet along with all our family’s Judaica – our kiddish cups, our candle sticks, our challah and seder plates, and our havdallah sets.

This summer, while I was at Camp Ramah Darom[1], I had the chance to learn how to blow glass. Let me set the scene for you that day.  It was a hot and humid day in North Georgia, and I had just 29 minutes with a man who stood in front a fiery furnace.  The man looked at me, and gave me a long metal tube, and said to me, “I’m going to need you to listen carefully to what I’m about to tell you.  What you are about to do is not going to be easy, but you will create something beautiful today.  We only have 29 minutes, so let’s get started.” 

Tonight, I’m going to tell you why this thing I made out of glass is holy to me, and I hope the lessons I learned when I made it will help you find holiness on the holiest night of the year, but I hope to do it in less than 29 minutes. 

Here are the three main lessons I want to teach you tonight are:

1.     It’s ok, once in a while, to be alone, actually, we need it. 
2.     Our breath has tremendous power
3.     We are delicate and we are constantly being shaped, just like glass.

And there’s one other big lesson that I’m going to save for tomorrow.

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, but it was on this day thousands of years ago that our people received a very special gift, a priceless piece of art that we put in our cabinet. 

Moses, our teacher, had a pair of tablets in his hands, the 10 Commandments. Can you imagine how he must have felt holding these tablets literally made by God!  Now, imagine how he felt when he saw his people dancing in front of the golden calf.  And so, he broke them, he broke these tablets on the 17th of Tammuz, and he went back up the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, and he made a new set of tablets.  And today, on Yom Kippur, he brought them down, the second tablets. 

The Talmud tells us that Yom Kippur was the happiest day of the year because we are forgiven for our sins and because Moses brought us these new tablets it was a fresh start. 

And here is what happened to Moses on this day, that Yom Kippur, thousands of years ago.  He comes down with the second tablets, and Torah tells us:

And Moses had not known that the skin of his face had become radiant when God was speaking with him.  And Aaron and all the children saw Moses, v’hinei, Karan Or Panav, and here, the skin of his face was radiant, Va’yiru migeshet eilav – and they feared to approach him,   - Exodus 34:29 – 30.

I like to read these last words, and they feared to approach him, in a different way.  The people see him, and he looks completely different.  They don’t fear him, they are IN AWE of him, in awe of his radiance. 

Where does Moses’s radiance come from?

Moses was in a cave for 40 days and 40 nights– he was with God, he was alone, but with God.  Can you imagine if this happened nowadays?  How many times would Moses have been interrupted by a call or a text? 

“Bzzzzzz (vibrating sound), hold on God, I have to take this call.”

How many times are we truly alone?  How many times are we with someone, and they are talking, and we are thinking, “What’s going on on Facebook?  Who will call me next?  Oh, I forgot to text so and so.”  It never ends, from the moment we pick our heads up from our pillows to the moment we lay them down! 

In the world of constant connectivity, we are never truly alone.

As I sat with the glass blower in front of this kiln, and he told me, I need you to focus, because this oven is really hot and you don’t have a lot of time.  I’m not going to talk to you either unless absolutely necessary – think about yourself as being alone right now.

It is not easy to be alone, sometimes, it can be scary to hear our thoughts that have been dormant for so long, but in order to create this glass cup, I had to be alone in my thoughts, and focused. 

Admiral Richard E. Byrd was a famous American explorer who received the Medal of Honor, the highest honor given out by the U.S. for his expeditions to the North and South Poles.  In 1934, he manned an advanced weather base in the Antarctic, but he insisted on being alone.  Here is what he wrote in his diary about this decision:  “Aside from the meteorological and auroral work, I had no important purposes. There was nothing of that sort.  Nothing whatever, except one man’s desire to know that kind of experience to the fullest, to be by himself for a while and to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are.” 

Byrd led a very happy life, he loved being surrounded by his family and friends.  But, he was put under a tremendous amount of pressure organizing all of these expeditions to the North and South Poles because of fundraising and publicity.  It gave him high anxiety and he was overwhelmed.  He writes that he was spent, he was tired, and he had lost his way.  His time alone re-energized him, he says he never felt more alive. 

The Rabbis used to do something interesting – before they would daven, before they would join the minyan for prayer, they would meditate for an hour in order to attain a Koved Rosh, a koved mind.  Koved can mean heavy, or it can mean serious, or it could mean honorable – a serious mindset.[2]

It teaches me an important lesson:  when we are alone, we are able to take ourselves seriously, we are able to honor ourselves, we are able to confront and overcome the heavy things in our lives.  And we are able to appreciate the beauty of the world. 

We become radiant! 

Byrd wrote in his diary about his time alone, “I did take away something that I had not fully possessed before:  appreciation of the sheer beauty and miracle of being alive, and a humble set of values…Civilization has not altered my ideas.  I live more simply now, and with more peace.” 

Moses went back into that cave and he made a second set of Tablets, not God.  He was alone with God for 40 days and 40 nights.  He needed that time to recover, to recharge himself, to find meaning and purpose again. 

On Yom Kippur, the Cohen Gadol, the high priest, had a very special task – he had to go to the Holiest of Holy places, the place in the Temple which contained the Ark of the Covenant which held these very same ancient tablets, the Ten Commandments, and he said the name of God, alone.  For one moment in the year, the high priest had to be alone with God, and when he came out, our prayers tell us that he had the same radiance on his face that Moses had. 

Perhaps we can learn from this, perhaps we can give ourselves at least one moment a year to achieve the highest degree of holiness.  When we spend a little time alone, we are better equipped to be better people in this world.  So this year, I ask, if you can, to do one thing – spend a couple of minutes being truly alone so you can gain radiance and strength.  Turn off your phone, go for a walk, be present and with yourself so you can be radiant this year.  And just like the people of Israel who looked at Moses and the high priest, in awe, maybe people will look at you in awe this year. 

And now, the second lesson, which I could only learn by being alone, when I made this glass cup, is the power of my breath. 

The correct term for making a glass item is blowing glass.  You stand with a long metal tube with the lava like gooey substance on the other end, and in order to make something, you have to blow your air into it. 

It wasn’t easy.  At first, you have to blow really hard to make the glass expand, but then, you have to blow really softly lest you cause a hole to develop in the glass, and all the while, you are turning and turning this metal tube.  I went from being out of breath at one point to having to barely blow just a minute later.

After I had blown successfully, the glass blower said some very profound words, “Look at what your breath created!” 

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the creation of world and humanity.  God creates Adam in the following way, “YHWH God fashioned Adam, dust from the ground, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human, Adam, became a living being.” 

Without breath, things cannot come to life.  God’s name in this line in Genesis 2:7 is Yud Hey Vav Hey.  God has many names, but one of the unique names of God for the Jewish people is YHVH – which some say is an onomatopoeia, a word that imitates or resembles the source of the sound that they describe – for example, the ultimate Jewish onomatopoeia – OY! 

If you say the word YHVH, it is literally a breath. 

It’s the name of God that the High Priest may have uttered in the Holy of Holies. 

What does it mean to be made in the image and likeness of God?  We have the power of creation, just like God does.  The question is, what are we creating when we use our breath? 

It’s during this holiday, Yom Kippur, when we confront the sins we perform, the realities we create with our breath. How do we repent and seek atonement for them?  We must recite them out loud in the form of the Vidui, the confessional.  It’s the third in a series of four steps of Tesuvah, repentance.  The first two are internal – first we must regret our actions, to acknowledge to ourselves that we’ve made a mistake; then, we have to stop performing the actions; but then, we must confess out loud. 

Why out loud?  Because when we give breath to something, it becomes alive.  Then, and only then, can we complete the repentance process by resolving not to do it again. 

Our breaths create the realities we live in; they create who we are.  The question is, what kind of selves are we creating?  This leads me to my third lesson:  We are all delicate works of art, and we are constantly changing, whether we like it or not. 

In the Yom Kippur evening liturgy, the prayers we recite tonight, there is a beautiful, powerful, and some would say scary poem called Ki Hinei KaChomer –As Clay in the hands of the potter – one of the stanzas states the following, “As glass in the hand of the glazier [gley-zher] who shapes and melts it at will, so are we in Your hand, pardoner of sin and transgression.  The poet pleads with God – use us creatively, not destructively!  Let us become beautiful art in this world!  Help us achieve our potential! 

And the poet forces us to acknowledge – we are like clay, we are like glass, but isn’t that a good thing?  It means that I can change, that I can be become better. 

One time a woman was shopping for Thanksgiving dinner, but none of the turkeys she found were large enough to feed her family. She asks a young man stocking the shelves:  “Do these turkeys get any bigger?”

“No, ma’am,” he answers. “They’re all dead.”

Today, on Yom Kippur, we confront death head on – we are rehearsing our deaths by wearing white, by abstaining from earthly pleasures, but we are doing so alive, and breathing. 

The Psalmist says, Lo HaMeitim Yehaleluyah, the dead can’t praise God, and they also can’t change, but we can. 

We grow firmer or more flexible in our attitudes. We develop new skills and abilities. We grow in vision and we grow in confidence. We may also change in negative ways if we’re not careful. We may grow more fearful, more cynical or insensitive to others. We may even find ourselves becoming people we don’t like very much.

Life is all about growing and changing.

If we’re dead, we won’t grow. But if we’re alive, we will. The only question is, will you decide how you want to grow? Will you decide to take responsibility for shaping your life? Because, if you don’t make a decision about how you’re going to grow, life will make it for you. If you’re not in the process of becoming the person you want to be, you are in the process of becoming someone you had no intention of being.[3]
So my question is, not if you are growing and changing this year, but how are you growing the changing this year? 

When you are faced with adversity this year, when someone cuts you off in traffic, or you are hurt by a friend or loved one, and you are alone, with just yourself, ask yourself the following question before you act: 

What would the person I want to become do in this situation?

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

Remember, as glass in the hand of the glazier [gley-zher], who shapes and melts it at will, so are we in Your hand – God helps us create ourselves, God helps us shape ourselves.  What kind of YOU do YOU want to create this year?  Remember, God gave us God’s breath, which allows us to constantly grow and change.  It’s a gift – don’t take it for granted, keep shaping yourself, keep creating the person YOU want to be.   

Bruno Mars was right:  ‘you’re amazing, just the way you are.’

You’re great now, you’re amazing.  Actually, you might be the person you need to be right now, so celebrate it. 

But, with your next breath, you will change, and it’s up to you to make the decision of how you want to change.

First, you need to work on YOU.  You need a couple of moments to be alone with God so you can become even more radiant.

Second, you have to realize how powerful you can be using your breath.

And third, you have to have the wisdom to use that power to change yourself, with God’s help, because you’re changing no matter what, so why not be in control of that change? 

Remember, someone else is waiting for you in the future – a different version of you, but you can create that person, with every breath you take.

[1] Thank you to Camp Ramah Darom and Laurel (Daphna) Robinson for this one of a kind opportunity -
[2] BT Berachot 30b
[3] Inspired by Steve Goodier of


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