As summer is winding down and we begin to take a heshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our souls, in preparation for the approaching High Holy Days, I think that most of us are able to get in touch with a piece of ourselves that feels a little broken. It’s a perfectly natural feeling that we all have from time to time.
And we begin to wonder, what do we do with our brokenness? How do we acknowledge our pain without dwelling on it and letting it bog us down? This week’s Torah portion gives us a suggestion.
The Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book in the Hebrew Bible, is a retelling of many of the events that occurred in the first four books of the Torah. Moses knows that he will soon die and not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. In a series of discourses, he reminds them of all the lessons they learned on their 40-year journey through the wilderness so that they will have a successful entry into the Land of Canaan without him.
In this week’s portion, Ekev, Moses recalls receiving the commandments written on tablets of stone from God atop Mt. Sinai. When Moses returned to the camp, he discovered that, in his absence, the Israelites had built the golden calf, and he saw them dancing wildly around it. Moses was so enraged to see the Israelites worshipping this idol that he hurled the tablets to the ground, shattering them into many small pieces.
Later, God decides to give the Israelites another chance and decides to give Moses another set of tablets. This is how Moses tells it, “Thereupon God said to me, ‘Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.’ ”
The Midrash expounding on this story focuses on the very simple word, “them.” What is “them?” What do they deposit in the ark?
A Midrash tells us that both sets of tablets were kept in the ark, side by side – the whole and complete tablets alongside the broken pieces of the first set.
Our people’s story includes the Israelites’ carrying their brokenness with them on their journey through the desert. There was no attempt to deny their disgraceful lapse into idol worship, and there was no pretense that it had not happened.
As a people, we Jews know that our brokenness is part of what makes us whole. We know that our painful and shameful experiences help form us and mold us into becoming the best human beings we can be. We have no delusions that we will never again make mistakes, and we know that while we may strive for perfection, we will never be able to achieve it.
We need our brokenness as a precious reminder of where we come from and where we want to go. Our brokenness commands us to be humble and grateful; it encourages us not to judge others too harshly.
Each one of us has broken pieces in our own hearts, and while we don’t want them to be at the center of our lives and control our actions, we also don’t want to get rid of them.
As we prepare ourselves for the sacred work that the High Holy Days require of us, let’s use this week’s teachings from the Torah portion, Ekev, to remind us that our brokenness is a valuable piece of our puzzle. As we embrace our brokenness, we are more able to learn and grow, to make better decisions about how we want to live, and to move freely forward in life.
A peaceful Shabbat to all.
Andrew Klein is rabbi of Temple Habonim in Barrington and secretary-treasurer of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.