February 14, 2014: The Broken Tablets (Ki Tissa)

The Healing Power of Brokenness

Ten years after leaving an abusive relationship, a woman reports that the break up was the best thing that ever happened to her. At the time, though, she didn’t know how she would go on living, because he had convinced her that she couldn’t make it on her own without him. Eventually, and with the support of old and new friends, she picks herself up, works her way through law school, and opens a family law practice so she is in the position to help others in similar circumstances.

A person reflects on his cancer diagnosis: “It was a wake up call. Sure I had heard of many tough situations - health challenges, people passing, and more - and thought, ‘Wow. I feel so sad for that person,’ and then I’d stop thinking about it and continue with my own preoccupations. Suddenly, I realized that each day was a precious gift for spending with my family and for pursuing a lifelong dream to compose music, which I had abandoned as a teenager.”

A man’s wife dies only a few years after they were married, and he feels as if his own soul flew away. However, he made a promise to her that he was going to live for both of them, in accordance with supreme Jewish commandment: “I have set before you life and death… therefore, choose life!” Recently, he confesses that he is a better person because of her death—more open, more compassionate, less wrapped up in himself.

Suffering is not uniformly distributed, but it is widely distributed. I don’t know why divine wisdom necessitates that human beings must feel pain, but I do know that we hurt twice over when we compound our suffering with the self-pity and resentment of “why me.” If we dwell on God’s indifference and cruelty for allowing misfortune to happen to us, then we also cut ourselves off from the comfort and strength that spiritual nourishment can provide us in order to surmount our difficulties.

Ironically, we are psychologically constituted in such a way that our greatest opportunities for growth tend to occur when we are devastated. On the verse: “You return the human being to dust, and You enjoin: shuvu bnei adam, return you mortals,” (Psalm 90:3) the Midrash comments that teshuvah, the will to return to God, arises precisely at the moment when the spirit is crushed. After all, why mend our habitual attitudes and behavior when life is smooth sailing? Only when the wind is knocked out of us do we find ourselves wide open to the possibility of change. Thus, the Psalmist writes elsewhere: “Adonai is close to the brokenhearted; Adonai will deliver those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:19) Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk reiterates: “Nothing is more whole than the broken heart.”

Almost by definition, spiritual awakening entails a mortal blow to the ego. “There is violent beauty in revelation that the soul loves but the ego fears as death,” observes religious scholar Andrew Harvey. (Frankel, Sacred Therapy, page 40) In other words, something within us must die in order to for something else to be born. This spiritual principle underlies one of the most compelling interpretations of the richly layered second Amidah blessing, mechayei ha-meitim, “we praise You, God, as the Power who revives the dead” (which is why, in my personal davvening, I retain the traditional wording, rather than follow the route of classical Reform Judaism by changing the words to expunge the reference to resurrection). Life consists of overlapping cycles of death and rebirth—leaving behind old friends and acquaintances and gaining new ones, moving from one job, occupation or location to another, changing personal status, even watching our bodies physically progress through the successive phases of aging. As Rabbinic pastor and psychotherapist Estelle Frankel writes: “moving through life, we will continually embody and disembody life structures. We will shed old skins and grow new ones. The first vessels we embody, by necessity, must shatter in order to make room for the continual growth of the self.” (Sacred Therapy, page 43)

For Frankel, the myth of the broken tablets symbolizes 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. Our first marriages or first careers may fail to live up to their initial promise. We may join communities or follow teachers and paths that disappoint or betray us. Our very conceptions of God and our assumptions about the meaning of faith may shatter as we bump up against the morally complex and contradictory aspects of the real world. Yet if we learn from our mistakes and find ways to pick up the broken pieces of shattered dreams, we can go on to recreate our lives out of the rubble of our failures. Ultimately, we become wiser and more complex as our youthful ideals are replaced by more realistic and sustainable ones.”

Frankel’s words are reminiscent of the poem cycle Songs of Innocence and Experience, the crowning literary achievement of the great English author William Blake. Blake delineates three possible stages during the course of a human life: innocence, experience, and then back to innocence. When an infant is born, everything she does is new, exciting, and joyful; at the same time, she is spared from pain by her parents and protective environment. Sooner or later, however, she must grow up into adulthood and confront the cruelties of the wider world. At this point, she passes into the state of experience; she becomes realistic, if not cynical and embittered. Many never emerge from this second stage. However, if she is receptive and motivated, she may pass into a new stage of innocence, in which she recaptures the wonder and gratitude of being alive. At the same time, this is not the same as her original, Pollyanna innocence, ignorant of experience; it is a mature innocence informed by experience, tempered by experience, and incorporating experience.

The Talmud sets forth the following myth of the broken tablets. When Moses comes down from the mountain the second time, bearing the replacement set of commandments, he finds the Israelites gathering up the fragments of the original set and placing them with devotion at the bottom of the ark. Rather than clear away the debris, Moses carefully lays to rest the second tablets on top of the layer formed by the pieces of the first, as on a soft cushion. (cf. bBaba Batra 14b) The image of the new resting upon the old, of the complete work supported and upheld by the broken pieces, is a reminder that the way forward lies not by fleeing our brokenness or circumventing it, but entering directly into our brokenness and travelling through it, so that we may emerge out the other end into wholeness.

To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway: “we are stronger in the places that were once broken.” We have all been shattered; we have all been wounded at some point or at various points. May we find strength precisely in the tender places; may we find a way to piece together our fragmented experiences so that we too may regain the sheer wonder and joy of being alive—the excitement of embarking on the grand adventure of life—not by rejecting our past, but by reclaiming it.