Sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug. If you use social media — sometimes you’re the ones posting carefully curated photos of our delicious meal, our adorable kids or grandkids, our phenomenal vacation – we are “hashtag blessed” – and sometimes we’re the ones hiding out in the bathroom from our screaming kids, or dealing with overwhelming stress from work or family, or dealing with loneliness, anxiety, depression, and we’re scrolling through our facebook and instagram feeds and feeling like everyone else has everything, and has it all together.
It is so commonplace to carefully curate and perfect these supposed “snapshots” of moments of our lives, and then to publish them to our friends, acquaintances, and strangers too, that it is now common to declare with a hashtag when we haven’t “filtered” the image – “hashtag nofilter.”
I tend to pride myself on my honest Facebook posts on the challenges of parenting, work-life balance, and being pretty self-deprecating (a key part of Jewish humor, too!), but last summer, on a vacation to Cape Cod, I ended up one day with a series of beautiful shots of our family on the beach at sunset, Go-kart riding, eating fried fish sandwiches, and realized that the people scrolling through their Facebook feeds and seeing this would assume that we were having an unadulterated grand ol’ time on our vacation. Given that we were traveling with our three rambunctious boys, some of whom argue with each other quite a bit, and staying in a small cottage, this vacation was not exactly a “vacation” from all of life’s challenges. I then posted the following: “Just a reminder about the limits of social media, in case anyone out there forgets that regardless of how lovely vacation (or regular life) pics look there is always a lot more to people’s stories than you can see on social media: I’m currently hiding out in the bathroom from the noise and general chaos/fighting of the kids, and considering the locking bathroom door to be one of the best features of our vacation! #realbookingnotfakebooking #needavacationfromthevacation
No matter how “hashtag blessed” we are, no matter how fortunate we have been, not one of us escapes struggle and suffering. There is a lot of truth to a popular meme on FB: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
I hope to build the kind of community where more of us know more about each other’s struggles and challenges, and hold each other up. In order to share our authentic selves with one another – share our stories – we need to be able to acknowledge the battles we have fought or are fighting, the places where we are broken.
On this day, and in Jewish tradition as a whole, we are called upon to bring our brokenness into the light – to acknowledge it and in a way, to embrace it, and to share with ourselves and with God what hurts and has been hurt within us. Our tradition teaches us in so many ways that only through the recognition and embrace of our brokenness can we become truly whole, and more fully human. Our repentance and rebirth on these high holy days isn’t founded on eliminating the brokenness, but on acknowledging it, claiming it, and building upon and around it. This is, paradoxically, what it is to be whole.
Images of the redemptive power of brokenness permeate our tradition. Lurianic Kabbalah, the school of Jewish mysticism that dates back to the 16th century and was founded by Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (known by his acronym, the “ARI.”), offers a mystical account of creation that supplements the creation story in Genesis. According to Kabbalah, before the world was created, there was only God – limitless energy called “Ein Sof” (infinite). God decided to contract godself to create a world, pouring God’s divine energy into vessels. The energy could not hold such powerful divine energy, and shattered, scattering the broken shards outward. Those broken shards are what became our world. Our world, then, is made up of sparks of divine energy concealed in these broken shards, and it is our task to do tikkun – repair – gathering up the divine sparks that are scattered among the broken shards of the vessels.
Not only the creation story of the world, but the creation story of the relationship between God and the people Israel, is founded on a brokenness that leads to wholeness. In the book of Exodus, Moses discovers that the people have built a golden calf while awaiting his return from the top of Mt. Sinai, and in anger shatters the tablets on which the ten commandments were written. After pleading with God to have mercy on the people, he returns down from the mountain with a second set of tablets, this time, which he himself had written. If you are wondering what happened to the shards of the broken tablets, you’re in good company – the rabbis of the talmud and later commentators wondered the same thing, and provided a variety of answers. Based in part on the fact that a later verse says that Moses put the “tablets” (plural) in the ark, The Talmud teaches us that “The [new] tablets as well as the broken pieces of the tablets were placed in the Ark.”1
Elsewhere in Talmud, “Rabbi Judah bar Ilai taught that two arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness – one in which the Torah was kept and one in which the tablets broken by Moses were kept. The one in which the Torah was placed was kept in the Tent of Meeting; the other, containing the broken tablets, would come and go with them.”2) The broken tablets would come and go with them. From this we can infer that the broken tablets are somehow even more special and treasured by the people – they took them wherever they traveled. Just as we take the broken parts of ourselves with us wherever we go. Brokenness, our tradition tells us, is not to be cast away or shunned. It is to be held close, embraced.
The kabbalistic (mystical) tradition, has much to say about the broken tablets as well, and imagines even a greater intimacy with brokenness. A 16th century mystic, R. Eliyahu deVidash, writes that the Zohar (the foundational text of Jewish mysticism)…teaches that the human heart is the Ark. And it is known that in the Ark were stored both the Tablets and the Broken Tablets. Similarly, a person’s heart must be full of Torah… and similarly, a person’s heart must be a broken heart, a beaten heart, so that it can serve as a home for the Shekhina, the divine presence. For the Shekhina [divine presence] only dwells in broken vessels…”3
From Rabbi Devidash we learn that, counterintuitively, our brokenness is precisely what allows us to draw closer to God. This concept is echoed in the ancient book of Psalms, which tells us: “karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” (God is close to the broken-hearted)(34:18). And moving forward to the time of the birth of the Hasidic movement, the 18th century – there is a saying from the Kotzker Rebbe: “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.” Another hasidic story states that a broken heart is “a master key…that opens all doors” to God. This message echoes through the millenia: Our brokenness opens us up to God, and brings God close to us.
Have you ever had a particularly cathartic cry, and you almost feel turned inside out– opened up in some way? When the heart breaks, it breaks open, and in the space, the expanse, that is created, God can come in. In the ancient Temple was the Holy of Holies – the innermost sanctum into which divine energy was understood to be present and potent. When our heart breaks, we let God into our innermost sanctum – we let the divine light into our deepest hurts. Sometimes the “God,” the light, that comes in, comes in the form of the support and love of other people. When you cry, and let others know you are suffering, you provide an opening for someone to embrace you or an opening for someone to listen to you pour out your heart. If you stay closed (“where I am closed, I am false” writes the great poet, Rilke) you don’t make space for someone to come and lift up your broken shards to the light – the light of relationship, of love, which is most holy. Those among you who are fans of the late, great singer/songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen may be reminded of lines from his famous song, “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Because, as I told you, sharing our stories is important to me and important to this community, I want to share something with you about the shards I carry. On June 17, 1998, when I was 24, my father died suddenly at age 53. My dad was also my greatest champion, support, and hero. We spoke every day, and shared everything from our sense of humor to our sense of awe and wonder at the universe and at this great gift of life. Because I tend to work through things using language, because I love words, it was words that came to me first, after the initial shock of that phone call telling me that my dad was gone. The words that came to me were: “I am privileged to be on intimate terms with the ultimate mystery.” Not “privileged” in the sense that anyone should or would choose to have such an experience, but I simply felt that I was right there in the belly of the beast, as close as it was possible to come to the source of all life – the mystery – God. I felt, like no other time in my life, that I was on intimate terms with the greatest mystery, up close with that which we can never understand. I was completely broken open, and in that space, something holy entered. This “something holy” took many forms – sometimes, it was the poems that would come to me in the middle of the night; sometimes, it was the words or embrace of another person; sometimes it was the opportunity to empathize with and support another brokenhearted person; space was made in me for something to enter.
And our tradition in all its wisdom gives us the gift of an annual opportunity — Yom Kippur – to let down our guard, feel the brokenness, and let in holiness and healing, so that we emerge cleansed and whole. Multiple times during the High Holy Days, we as a community recite the viddui, the confessional. When we do, we make a gentle fist, and we tap ourselves. My colleague Rabbi Toba Spitzer has written, “…we tap our chest gently during each recitation of wrongdoing, as if we are saying – broken, broken broken; open, open, open.”
4Anyone who has ever been the parent of a young child knows what can happen at the end of a long day, when the child has been in the care of someone else, holding it together, and then the end of the day comes, and the child just….falls apart. Cries at the drop of a hat, whines, shouts, throws a tantrum…they are breaking open for you, holding their broken parts (tired, hungry, upset, whatever) up to you, up to the light, because they can, because they are safe….they break open, and what do you do, as a parent? You hug that child tight. You accept them, unconditionally, in all their brokenness. They know that you will. And they emerge from your embrace…whole again.
In a way, I thought to myself during one such tantrum recently (my child’s, not mine :)), this is like a little Yom Kippur. All year, we are “holding it together,” if we want to, we can pretend that we are perfectly ok, that we are whole….we can brush right over our broken parts. We can do this because it isn’t in our nature to express them, or because we’re just too busy, or because it is so easy to tune into so much else with the infinite information streams of our screens, that it tunes us out from the quiet, knowing self and from one another; but then, Yom Kippur comes, and we are asked to just….let it all go. On Yom Kippur we are stripped bare, honest and raw and we admit, we confess, all our imperfections and we hold them up to the light, we break open and we are embraced, we are accepted, just as we are. And we can emerge from that embrace, whole again, because we carry, rather than cast off, our broken pieces. With this wholeness comes relief, comes joy. We feel renewed, not just relieved that we can finally eat, and drink coffee, again! The joy lies in the pure honesty of the day – the sweet relief of admitting to our imperfections to ourselves, and to the others with whom we stand.
In embracing all of ourselves, in exercising the muscle of self-compassion, we are strengthening our ability to be compassionate to others….strengthening our ability to be empathetic….let down our guards, take down our masks, acknowledge our shared faults. This is authentic connection, and this creates community. Just the other day I heard a violinist interviewed on WBUR’s “On Point” – she referred to something Yo Yo Ma has said: “Perfection isn’t very communicative.” Exactly, I thought (excited about adding this to my remarks today :)), the guise of perfection doesn’t allow space for real encounter, for connection and communication. When we embrace our own brokenness, we empower ourselves to heal others, and to repair the world. Remember the broken vessels of Lurianic Kabbalah’s creation myth? The shards of the shattered vessels comprise all of creation. Only by embracing this brokenness, in ourselves, and in others, can we begin the sacred task of tikkun olam, of repairing the world. The original, mystical meaning of the words “tikkun olam” which refer to gathering up the divine sparks scattered amidst the shards of vessels, and the modern meaning of “repairing the world” aren’t so far apart.
I want to make sure you know that not only on Yom Kippur, but every day, each one of you and your broken pieces are welcome here, and will be supported, and not judged. We can be and will be a community in which every human being is met with empathy, for no matter what our particular struggles happen to be or have been, we are all struggling in some way. Today, in the unetaneh tokef prayer, we say we are “agudah achat” – one unit, integrally interconnected, but this is true not only today, but every day.
We don’t know what the coming year will hold for any of us. And so we pray for a chatima tova – that we may may we all be sealed for life in the book of life – may we experience, in the great poet Rilke’s words, the “beauty and the terror”5 of our lives in the coming year knowing that the clear unbroken note of the shofar contains within it the broken notes, and the broken notes contain the seeds of holiness and wholeness; Let us carry with us, at the end of this day, the knowledge that from the vast expanse, just when we feel alone, empty, disheartened, brokenhearted, the Holy will come to meet us. In our brokenness we will be made whole, again and again.
1 Bava Batra 14b
2 Sefer ha aggadah 89, from talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 1:1
3 Eliyahu de Vidash, Reishit Chochmah, cited in Broken Tablets: A Study Guide for Shavuot, by Mishael Zion (http://textandcity.blogspot.com/2014/06/broken-tablets-study-guide-for-shavuot_2.html)
5 Rainer Maria Rilke, Love Poems to God (trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)