The Broken Alongside the Whole

March 10, 2023

When I turned 16, I was lucky enough to inherit my dad’s 1996 Jeep Cherokee. It was deep blue, with one of those iconic 90’s side decals, all manual locks and windows, just enough AC to tolerate the Texas heat, and only a cassette player, which I retrofitted with an adapter to play CDs on my Discman (remember those?!), which would skip horribly while driving on anything but the smoothest of pavement. In short, I loved my Jeep.

However, within just a few weeks, I failed to hit the brakes fast enough at a four-way stop, and rolled into the minivan in front of me. Thankfully, no one was hurt; the minivan and its passengers drove away totally unscathed, but the entire (plastic) front of my car (along with my heart and my ego) was shattered. My poor reflexes didn’t cause damage to any integral mechanics, but with the front bumper, grille and headlights smashed in, and the radiator totally visible, the Jeep was undrivable. A few days later, my dad said he would help me fix the car but, instead of bringing it to a body shop, he handed me a Chilton repair manual, informing me that if I wanted to drive the Jeep again, I would have find the necessary parts in the book, help him remove the damaged pieces, and rebuild the front of the car.

I don’t recall how long it took, but I do remember the time spent in the garage with my dad, unplugging and replacing the headlights, attempting to wrestle the bent metal fittings back into shape, and ultimately affixing a 4×4 to the car’s frame, onto which the new bumper was mounted. With each hour that passed, each broken piece we replaced, I became more attached to that car than any other I’ve had since. It was truly mine, and I drove the Jeep through the rest of high school, into college and, with my best friend in the passenger seat, drove it all the way from Dallas to help my family move to Charlottesville, and cried inconsolably when my parents decided it was no longer road safe, and sold it for scrap metal. But more importantly, our time repairing the car taught me so much, allowed me to sense my own capabilities (with power tools, among other things!), the value of my material possessions, and of working with my hands. I also felt newly, differently connected to my dad; not as a little girl, but as a young woman, a person all my own, capable of owning my mistakes, and getting my hands dirty to make things right again.

This week’s parsha, Ki Tisa, is jam-packed with iconic biblical moments: the first Israelite census, intricate descriptions of the furnishings of the Mishkan (the Israelites proto-Temple in the wilderness), the commandment of Shabbat (including the verse, “V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et ha’Shabbat”), the Golden Calf episode, and not one, but two sets of tablets on which the commandments were written. At the beginning of Chapter 32, we learn that the Israelites are getting worried, because “Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain,” after ascending to receive the commandments, to the point of whipping themselves into an idol-worshiping frenzy, demanding that Aaron make them a god, resulting in the Golden Calf. And of course, upon seeing the idol and the Israelites worshiping it, Moses smashes (or drops, depending on the interpretation…) the original tablets, that were carved and inscribed by the “hand of God.” Eventually Moses re-ascends Mount Sinai to get a replacement set, but Moses does not simply receive the Tablets 2.0; Moses must carve the second set himself, upon which God “will inscribe the words that were on the first tablets, which you [Moses] shattered” (Exodus 34:1).

The first question that comes to mind is: Why did God command Moses to carve the second set himself? According to commentators, like 15th Century biblical scholar, Abarbanel, “When Moses shattered the tablets, the workmanship and form was lost, but the words inscribed were not destroyed or lost.” That is, the broken pieces cannot be made whole again, but the words – the laws and wisdom expressed through the tablets – were not altogether gone. And although Moses and the biblical authors do not have a generous view of the “stiffnecked” and “faithless” Israelites, some, like modern bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz, empathize with the Israelites in spite of the Golden Calf, and give them the benefit of the doubt, saying, “One single religious experience, however profound, was not capable of changing the people from idol worshippers into monotheists.” The Israelites – and Moses too – needed buy-in, skin in the game, to get their hands dirty, to fully accept Torah, as clearly neither had learned better, even after the miraculous events of the Revelation… Therefore, say commentators like Rashi and Ibn Ezra, God commanded Moses to carve the stone for the new tablets, ready to be inscribed, “for it was Moses’ obligation since he destroyed the first set of tablets”.

Not that I would have the chutzpah to compare my dad and I and the Jeep to God and Moses and Torah, but to my mind, the Israelites and I learned very similar lessons: You break, you fix, and with active participation in the repair comes personal buy-in, a sense of ownership, and an understanding of the value of the object itself, as well as what it represents. The notion of partnership in the labor too is important, as it strengthening the bond between me and my dad while working on the car, and between Moses and God to re-create the tablets, the proverbial vehicle through which the Israelites will forge their path to building meaningful lives and a just and equitable community.

And another question: When Moses made the new set, what became of the first, now-broken tablets? Conventional wisdom of contemporary consumer culture would tell us that when things are broken, throw them out, but not so for the ancient Israelites. According to the Talmud Menachot 99a, the broken pieces of the first tablets were placed alongside the whole second set of tablets in the Holy of Holies, the ark at the center of the Mishkan. They were carried with the people through the desert and generations later, placed side-by-side in the innermost sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem, The Holy of Holies. So too does our brokenness – our mistakes and regrets, dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams – accompany us on our journey, and lives alongside our wholeness, our accomplishments, proudest and most joyful moments. Both the broken and the whole are integral to the Israelites’ story, and to our story, because the brokenness – the failures, the missteps, big or small – are often a turning point, a catalyst for growth and development. The brokenness often leads us to learning new skills, emotional and physical, to understanding the value, not only of our material objects, but our interpersonal relationships, and to deeper personal investment in how we might bring ourselves, and this world, closer to wholeness.

Rabbi Jennifer Queen