Finding Renewal in Broken Vessels and Broken Hearts

April 5, 2024

This Shabbat, we prepare to transition into the Hebrew month of Nisan, which means… Passover is coming (join us for seder!) !! As we get ready, we’ll dust off and take stock of our holiday accouterments… Haggadot, matzah covers and of course, our seder plates. At this time every year, I think back to how I acquired my seder plate: in the summer of 2011, en route to a social entrepreneurship seminar in India with my Masters in Public Health program, a few classmates and I stopped over in Istanbul as a well-deserved reprieve after the stress of grad school finals. Over three glorious days, we wandered along the Bosphorus River, literally on the cusp between Europe and Asia, ate so much baklava, witnessed a whirling dervish ceremony replete with poetry by Sufi master, Rumi, and twisted our way through the Grand Bazaar. There, I noticed the most beautiful, intricately decorated ceramics – tiny black and white dots and swirls, painted over brilliant blues, greens, oranges and purples – and of course, I had to have some. I bought a big plate, much like this one, which happened to accommodate 7 little matching bowls, much like this – perfect for each of the symbols of the seder plate! This would be my very own, grown up seder plate! I imagined my future seder guests – my family, my future children – admiring the intricate designs behind the charoset and karpas as I regaled them with stories from my travels…

Istanbul was just a pit stop, and we spent the following two weeks traversing the overcrowded neighborhoods of Mumbai and rural provinces outside of Delhi, meeting with entrepreneurs tirelessly working to bring clean water to their villages, to support women business owners, and to get girls enrolled in school with the goal of ending child marriage. Since I was to spend the following two weeks backpacking, I decided to ship some non-essentials home. With my seminar books on the bottom of the box, I carefully ensconced my seder plate and bowls in my “western” clothes (opting for breezy salwar camese, traditional Indian women’s wear, for the duration of the trip) and TONS of bubble wrap, and plastered the outside with FRAGILE stickers. 

A month after arriving home, my box was finally delivered, and I bet you can guess what happened… The rattling inside told me the dreaded truth: while many of the little bowls made it, the big beautiful plate was broken, and so was my heart. It took me months to gather the courage to unwrap it and survey the damage, and another month to go buy the right glue and attempt to salvage this plate for which I had such high hopes, to no avail. It was beyond repair, but I nonetheless held onto the broken pieces for a long time after. Thankfully I was able to return to Istanbul a few years ago and buy replacements – taking them home in my carry-on this time! – but this experience sticks with me. Never before had I ascribed so much value, so much hope to an otherwise mundane object, and then come to terms with accepting and moving past its brokenness. 

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shmini contains many instructions for priestly laws and sacrifices, and calls our attention specifically to broken ceramic vessels. Immediately following descriptions of pure and impure animals, foundational for the kashrut laws, there are a handful of verses about the treatment of vessels that have come into contact with impurity (read: a dead animal). Leviticus 11:33 reads, “And if any of those [swarming things like mice or insects] falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be unclean and [the vessel] itself, you shall break.” Of course, breaking a vessel doesn’t mean the Israelites could just go out and get a new one. Don’t forget: they are still wandering in the desert, so anything that breaks, intentionally or accidentally, has to be repaired and reused. 

When taken on its face, this verse feels mundane, but this notion was seen among the Hasidim, the circles of Jewish spiritual renaissance in 18-19th century Eastern Europe, as a metaphor for the human experience: the broken vessels represent our broken human hearts in the aftermath of loss and hurt. Hasidic master, Menachem Mendel Morgensztern, the Kotsker Rebbe, once said, “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart,” teaching that in the course of human life, loss and trauma, whether close to home or halfway across the world, will break our hearts open, but that experience comes with the hope and understanding that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. In other words, as modern spiritual poet Leonard Cohen (z”l) once wrote, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” 

These cracks, the brokenness we experience, is painful, and yet this week’s parsha teaches us to honor that brokenness and hurt, and shows us how we might transform it and take advantage of the opportunity for repair and growth it brings. Like the biblical vessels, broken and repaired to regain their purity, may we not only come out stronger in the wake of brokenness, but may we be fundamentally re-shaped, opened anew and ready to greet the month of Nisan and this season of renewal and endless potential.

Rabbi Jenn Queen