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Ki Tissa and Broken-ness

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

Some rabbis choose to wear robes, and there is, of course, a big advantage to that: you never have to worry about what to wear for services. I usually try to wear something nice, something that will honor Shabbat and the congregation. Tonight I wanted to particularly call attention to my shoes. These shoes are not that old and surprisingly comfortable. It amazes me how quickly shoes can get really beat up looking. And, it is equally amazing to me how the skilled shoemaker at the corner of Tatum and Thunderbird can consistently take my beat up shoes and make them look new again! When I was young, there were repair shops of all varieties. Now, just try to get your toaster repaired! People will look at you like you are nuts and explain that it’s much cheaper and easier to buy a new one. Throw it out and replace it- it’s the American way.

 In this week’s Torah portion, Moses is up on the mountain receiving the Torah from God, and the Israelites grow impatient. They implore Aaron to create a god for them, they donate jewelry for the project, and they form a golden calf. Moses hurries down the mountain to witness his people, who have just experienced all of God’s power and glory first hand, worshipping this golden calf. In vs. 19 we read that he became so enraged that he hurled the tablets to the ground, and they shattered.

 Throw ‘em out and replace them, right? Wrong! Yes, Moses does ultimately replace the broken tablets, which are placed in the holy ark in the Mishkan. Along with the broken shards! You would think that we would want to completely forget this whole ugly incident, and yet, we accord those broken pieces a place of honor. The broken and the whole, equally holy. A metaphor for our lives- our moments of triumph and joy, our moments of disappointment, loss, broken-ness— together they make up who we are, and we honor all of it! Broken-ness is not a curse or a punishment- it is the price of being alive in this world. Each of us carries our own broken tablets.

 The rabbis teach that there is nothing so whole as a broken heart, and the modern poet Leonard Cohen adds- “There’s a crack in everything/That’s where the light comes in.” Rabbi Simon Jacobson asks why do we Jews pray at a broken wall when there are so many beautiful and inspiring places in the world? His answer- “Jews know that this isn’t a perfect world. As long as the world is not perfect, Jews cannot stand in a beautiful edifice. Jews can only stand and cry at a broken wall. The illusion of perfect edifices in an imperfect world makes us feel good. . . The reality is that the world is a broken place- it’s a broken place full of broken people whose job is to mend what is broken.”

 It is our broken-ness that makes us human and enables us to connect to other humans with empathy for their struggles and hurts and disappointments. The Baal Shem Tov offered this analogy- There are many chambers in the palace of the king, meaning God, and one key unlocks them all. That ax- that key that opens every door and brings us directly into God’s presence, is a broken heart, as we read in Psalms, “God is close to the broken-hearted.” The mistakes we’ve made, the times when we were hurt, the pain when bad things just happened, all of these are part of who we are. When the Talmud discusses the arrangement of the broken and the whole tablets in the ark, it concludes that the broken ones were set at the bottom of the ark, and the complete set was arranged on the top, forming a steady base, a foundation. We build our lives on the broken fragments.

 God is so angry with the people that he is ready to destroy the entire Israelite community. Amazingly, in a single moment, Moses is able to turn from his sense of rage to a sense of kindness, empathy, and caring, as he becomes an advocate for the people. In verse 11 Moses begs God- “Adonai, do not let Your anger blaze forth against Your people.” His pleas are successful and God renounces the thought of punishment. We honor the broken parts of ourselves as the foundation on which we can open our hearts to the pain of others.

 I’ll conclude with the insightful words of Estelle Frankel, writing in her book Sacred Therapy, “The two revelations at Sinai can be seen as symbolizing the inevitable stages we go through in our spiritual development. The first tablets, like the initial visions we have for our lives, frequently shatter, especially when they are based on naively idealistic assumptions. . . Yet if we learn from our mistakes and find ways to pick up the broken pieces of shattered dreams, we can go on to re-create our lives out of the rubble of our initial failures. . . The myth of the broken tablets teaches us that when we abandon old pathways, it is important that we hold on to the beauty and essence of the dreams we once held dear. . . for ultimately the whole and the broken live side by side in all of us.”

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