Our imperfections help make us whole


Our Torah reading for Hol ha-Mo’ed Sukkot records one of Moses’ biggest blunders – the breaking of the first set of tablets in anger. Our text continues with the giving of the second set of tablets and a list detailing God’s 13 attributes of mercy.

I am always amazed at how much time our ancient rabbis devoted to discussing the broken pieces of the first set of tablets. One midrash teaches that these shattered remnants were as valuable as the whole tablets – likening them to jewels. Another rabbi taught that the Israelites carried the broken pieces throughout the wilderness in their very own Ark. Our tradition emphasizes that the broken pieces of the luhot (tablets) still have value as a gift from God.

How true of our own broken pieces as well. Even as we enter this bright new year, each of us has an ark of our own, which houses our insecurities, suffering and pain. Our rabbis seem to understand that these imperfections endow us with humility, grace and sensitivity. As a modern Jewish sage, Leonard Cohen, wrote: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

I grew up reading Shel Silverstein’s book, “The Missing Piece.” A circle with a wedge missing rolls all over the world singing “… and am looking for my missing piece.” As it turns out, after the circle finally finds the exact-size wedge that fits it, it realizes that it can no longer do the things it used to enjoy doing, like singing or rolling slowly enough to enjoy the company of a worm or butterfly. It decides that it was happier when it was imperfect.

Author Anne Roiphe wrote a book review in the New York Times for “The Missing Piece” when it came out in 1976. She wisely counseled: “This fable can also be interpreted to mean that no one should try to find all the answers, no one should hope to fill all the holes in themselves … because a person without a search, loose ends, internal conflicts and external goals becomes too smooth to enjoy or know what’s going on.”

Perfection can limit us. It is our flaws, our “growth experiences,” and even our flat-out failures that enable us to nourish our souls with the hope of something better. Even as we value our imperfections, the rabbis teach that we may not use broken pieces of branches for the s’khakh (the roof) of our sukkah. Our lulav and etrog must likewise be unblemished. Our tradition teaches us that we are guided by our mistakes but not defined by them. As we yearn for a brighter future, built upon the scars of the past, we go forth hopefully and with a whole heart.

Reading these words on Sukkot reminds us to be gentle with ourselves for our past mistakes as well as those we will make in the coming year – for very few of us will “get it right” every time. The Torah’s words are an inspiration to go forth with hope for the future of a world made whole by our strivings.

RABBI SARAH MACK (rabbimack@temple-beth-el.org) is rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Providence and president of the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis.