So many of us are experiencing so much right now. Fear, anxiety, courage, resilience, brokenness, sleeplessness, hope, loneliness. We’ve never lived through anything like this. As Americans, nothing like this has ever crossed onto our shores—wars happen elsewhere, epidemics happen elsewhere, we’ve led reasonably charmed lives that way. There is no new normal, because nothing right now is normal. Personally, communally, nationally or globally. We can’t be with our loved ones while they lay dying. Loved ones are dying alone. Too many people are dying of something we maybe should have foreseen and planned for and organized better. We were not built for social isolation; loneliness is not good for our emotional or physical health. The recession has cost ten of millions of us jobs and loss of income. Women are stuck at home with their abusers. Structural racism endures. Antisemitism is rising again. Children are still in cages on the border—and in the heat. Climate change has something to do with that heat. Fascism is spreading. Democracy may be ending before our eyes. Our country feels as divided as I imagine it felt before and during the Civil War, and now we get to experience it on social media.
And I bet if we unmute, I would hear more specific ways in which brokenness is all around us.
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann defines brokenness as “any kind of loss, pain, struggle or disappointment.” Estelle Frankel, a Jewish therapist and author, says brokenness comes from the “times when our lives, as we have known them, are shattered by the intrusion of fate or disappointment.” Shatterings, like the broken call of the shofar last week.
I’ve tried to tell myself that I feel fine—I’m living with my beloved husband, who is in good health, baruch HaShem, and my daughter’s belly has burgeoned as her pregnancy has progressed (she’s 38 weeks now). My cats sit on me and purr during the ubiquitous zoom meetings and as I call people or write. But within three days, I arrived at a doctor’s appointment 24 hours early, and gave people for 2 different zoom meetings the wrong information for the link. Nothing life shattering, but clearly denoting some lack of concentration. And again, I bet I’m not alone in this.
Now, I’m here to tell you, this brokenness is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, we Jews have experienced and continue to experience it even in joyful situations. We break a glass at weddings, to remember the destruction of the Temples—and to remind ourselves that we can hold joy and brokenness at one time. We break matzah during our seder to show that we can still find each other and become whole again. We hear the shevarim blast of the shofar, there to remind us that brokenness can lead back to wholeness, that the wails of grief can be supplanted by wholeness.
Another example goes back to the Exodus. While Moses was up on Mt. Sinai receiving the tablets of the Law, he was gone a little longer than the people expected. Finally, they couldn’t handle their anxiety any longer and they built a Molten Calf, treated it like a god and danced in a frenzied way. God took notice and lost God’s cool and prepared to destroy us, until Moses talked God down. [Slide 5] Moses descended the mountain and indeed the sight of that idol-worship was too overwhelming for him, and he smashed the tablets. After a plague and a time out, Moses climbed back up the mountain to receive the second set of tablets.
The Torah never tells us what happened to the first set, but midrash has it that we gathered the broken pieces and placed them in the Aron HaKodesh, the Ark of the Covenant, alongside the second set. We not only gathered our broken pieces together, but elevated them into the holiest of our holies.
Similarly, the Japanese practice Kintsugi, the art of fixing broken pottery. [Slide 6] Rather than using a camouflaged epoxy, Kintsugi employs a special tree sap lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver or platinum. The gold glitters in the conspicuous seams of the pottery. It emphasizes breaks rather than hiding or disguising them. Some say that the repaired piece is even more esthetically pleasing than the original.
Another Jewish way of addressing brokenness comes from Isaac Luria, the revolutionary mystic of the 16th century. He taught that when God created the world, God poured divine light into vessels to contain the light. However, the vessels could not hold the intensity of that holy light and shattered, falling into pieces onto the earth. While we can’t see them, according to Luria, they are there, and we can, through doing mitzvot, lift these sparks and cause cosmic healing. So, at the very start and heart of creation is brokenness. Part of the fabric of life itself. It is how it is. Out of brokenness, Luria is telling us, can come not just healing, but cosmic healing. We can make those vessels even more beautiful than they might have been before they shattered.
Artist Phillip Hansen shared in his TED talk that he had developed a shaking in his hand so that he was unable to do the pointillist art that he had practiced. By trying so hard to address it, he damaged a nerve, he discovered when he finally saw a neurologist. The doctor couldn’t do anything for him medically, but encouraged him to “embrace the shake”. He did. By embracing his limitations, he found himself full of newfound creativity, and curiosity for exploration. [Slide 8] Here’s what he did when he decided to see what he spent less than a dollar on art supplies. No longer hiding them or trying to overcome them, he found himself more than accepting them—but, well embracing them as the broken tablets were embraced by the Ark—and by us.
The Chassidic rebbe, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotkzer Rebbe, taught that nothing is more whole than a broken heart. And a Chassidic tale about the Shema starts with a student of the Kotzker asking him, “Why does the Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon our hearts,’ rather than in our hearts?” The rebbe tells him, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on our hearts. There they sit until one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
The broken heart holds a space for us to let in wisdom, understanding, hope, acceptance, love.
This is NOT to say that bad things happen so that we can learn from them. Rather that when they happen, we can use them as what Rabbi George Gittleman taught me is another f-ing opportunity for growth—an AFOG, and I’m sorry for the one word, but AFOG works better than A-OG.
As we deal with this world, we need all the tools we can muster to live in it, and we have been given a wealth of them from our tradition.
If we remember the vessels that were broken at the beginning of creation, we know that we can repair them, take them up one at a time, honor them, and make them more beautiful, more holy than before.
When the shofar blows Shevarim, and we hear the wails of pain, we remember that brokenness and wholeness are part of a cycle—from brokenness to wholeness and back again and back to wholeness again.
The first set of tablets, the broken ones, shattered in anger, anger at idolatry, teaches us that we honor brokenness, indeed place them in the holy of holies—whether that’s the Ark of the Covenant or our hearts.
The Kotzker rebbe reminds us that when our hearts are broken, we have the opportunity to grow again—in compassion, in love, in empathy, in wisdom.
May we take these lessons and wrap them in the words of the great rebbe, Leonard Cohen, who taught us:
To ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
Many thanks to Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Leonard Cohen, Philip Henson, and the Kotzker rebbe for help with this teaching.