Lately, it feels like I am having the same conversation in varying forms and guises. A conversation with a friend about marital struggles: Could he stick through it despite the pain and hurt? A conversation with a congregant about a personal struggle that is leaving them despairing. A conversation with my mother, who often feels at the end of her rope as she takes care of three sick relatives, while dealing with her own health challenges. A friend struggling with a loss. Conversations with my sister – every few days or sometimes every few hours– about how terrible the world is and how hard it is to wake up each morning and read the news.
Each conversation is unique. Yet the “conversation underneath the conversation” is the same and goes something like this: “Things feel so broken. I am heartbroken. What do I with all this brokenness and suffering? Is healing and wholeness possible and how in the world do I find it?”
These questions are universal– they arise from the human experience of living and loving. Yet they also feel particularly resonant on this day, Yom Kippur, and even more so, Kol Nidre night. The poet Merle Feld writes that on Kol Nidre we stand before God “naked” “without disguise, without embellishment.” With the vulnerability that comes from entering a day of self-examination and truth telling comes the possibility of being honest about places of pain and hurt in our lives.
Even those who consider ourselves lucky or blessed, who are marking the end of a joyful and fulfilling year, come into Kol Nidre aware of our frailty and failings.
Ultimately though, Yom Kippur is not just a time of going deep — it is a time of transformation, a move from solemnity to joy, some would say mini-death to rebirth. The gift of sacred time and space enable the possibility that we might move through what we are holding in our hearts to feel a profound release, culminating with the final shofar blast at the end of the holiday.
In that spirit, tonight, I want to share Jewish teachings, stories and ideas that have touched me in my own life and that I believe can help us make space for brokenness and aide us to move to healing and wholeness.
I will begin with some definitions. Then, I will share three teaching about brokenness and wholeness. Definitions:
When I say “brokenness,” I mean any kind of loss, pain, struggle or disappointment. As Estelle Frankel, a Jewish therapist and author, says, the brokenness comes from the “times when our lives, as we have known them, are shattered by the intrusion of fate or disappointment.” These shatterings could include the loss of a loved one; whether recent or decades ago (which we may be thinking about as we anticipate Yizkor tomorrow); strained relationships; loss of a job, physical possessions or of hope; rejection; divorce or separation; the burdens of attending to one’s own family and to aging parents; the pains and challenges of aging.
And often the most painful broken places are hidden ones, that only a small group of people know and hold in their hearts– pregnancy loss or infertility; struggles with mental illness or chronic disease.
Heartbreak is not limited to our personal relationships. This year in particular, it has been hard to have a social, informal conversation with anyone that does not also touch on the brokenness of living in a time when people in power actively seek to take away rights and protections for loyalty or corporate gain and when leaders at the highest level refuse to condemn anti-Semitism and actively promote hate to acquire political power.
As I think everyone in SAJ knows, the heartbreak of what goes on in the world lays heavily on my heart, sometimes breaking me to the core. I am sure I am not alone in this, each in our own way.
I want to take a moment of pause here and invite you to think about what is your heart tonight, what you are bringing with you, what brokenness you are holding tonight- perhaps something I mentioned or didn’t mention. Something personal or political.
Now, that I have set some parameters, I will share three approaches to brokenness and wholeness that I hope will inspire compassion and transformation.
Accepting and Honoring Brokenness
My experience of the culture in which we live is that there is limited space for brokenness, whether it be grief or suffering or the like. I have found that that Jewish tradition has a much more expansive, accepting and loving view. Perhaps best summed up by the Hasidic Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk who said, “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.”
Brokenness, at least according to one important interpretation, is embedded in Creation itself. This is an interpretation known to many of because of its use in social justice circles–but I believe it has broader implications than in that contemporary telling.
According to the teaching Rabbi Isaac Luria, the revolutionary and influential 16th century mystic and scholar, when God created the world, there was divine light that was being poured into vessels to contain the light. These vessels however could not contain the intensity of God’s light and ultimately shattered, falling into pieces onto the earth. We may not be able to see these pieces, but according to Luria, they are there, and human beings can, through mitzvot, lift up those divine sparks and enact cosmic healing.
What a radical idea! At the very heart of Creation is shattering, a breaking. Brokenness is thus part of the fabric of life, woven into our human experience of the world. There is no person immune from it; there is no person who has not experienced some kind of fracture in their own lives, some kind of disconnect. This is simply how it is.
What a relief!
There is a midrash, rabbinic commentary, that takes this idea a step further– from acceptance to a deep honoring of our broken shards.
This midrash is a response to the two sets of tablets the Israelites received from God.
First, we start with the story in our torah, as a reminder of the context. The Israelites–newly freed from slavery are wandering in the wilderness for over a month. Moses has gone up to Mount Sinai to commune with God. A good amount of time, just more than they were told, goes by and these impulsive Israelites get restless and decide to take matters into their own hands, which results in the Golden Calf. I invite you to see the scene in your mind’s eye: Here are the dancing, idolatrous Israelites, utterly unprepared for the commandments they are about to receive.
Soon, their merry-making becomes known to God and not surprisingly, God becomes very (understatement very) angry. Moses does what he normally does in response — pleads on behalf of the people, begging God for mercy and understanding. God finally gives to Moses’ pleas. Moses then heads down to his people. But when he witnesses the people’s sin with his very own eyes, he loses all his compassion and loyalty. Enraged, he hurls the two tablets to the ground, smashing them into pieces.
After the requisite biblical punishment of a plague and a time-out for those who remain, God asks Moses to carve out two new stone tablets for the people.
It is noteworthy that the torah, normally overly focused on details, does not say anything about what happens to the first set of tables. We are left to wonder: what happened to those shards? Did someone clean them up and throw them away? Where they left on the ground? Buried?
As I often say, the blank spaces in the torah are fodder for interpretation and meaning. With incredible insight, the rabbis of the Talmud tell us that the broken tablets were placed in the ark alongside the two new tablets. And these two sets of tablets, both broken and whole, traveled with the people into the Promised Land.
Let’s pause to really imagine those collected shards, representing the worst sin the Israelite people was ever known to make, being placed into the ark. They must have been heavy. They must have triggered feelings of shame and embarrassment. Yet those broken pieces were given the highest seat of honor. Some commentators even say that they served as the very foundation for the whole, in-tact tablets, the instruction of the law.
How many times have we buried our own feelings of pain or hurt, not giving ourselves the space to feel, accept or acknowledge our feelings? How many times have we pretended to be “ok” when we are not?
The rabbis were not just solving a textual problem; they were offering a worldview and a universal teaching. They instructed us: Do not bury your broken shards, cover them up, or discard them. Place them, in the ark inside you, in a seat of honor. Our broken places are part of us- cherish them and hold them with tenderness. Honor them as real, authentic and integral to who we are.
The ark becomes an embodiment of our own hearts– that are whole in their brokenness.
Letting Our Brokenness be an Opening
How do we not let our brokenness “break” us? Have us devolve into a pit of anger or despair from which it feels impossible to emerge?
It is natural to have our broken places leave scars and possibly even lead us to problematic thinking of behavior. Speaking about this human phenomenon, Parker Palmer, educator and author says, “The heart can be broken into a thousand shards, sharp-edged fragments that sometimes become shrapnel aimed at the source of our pain.” “Sometimes,” he says, we try “to ‘resolve it’ by inflicting wounds on others.”
Jewish tradition recognizes this human tendency and offers another possibility, offering a helpful path that can move us away from anger and towards acceptance and healing. This is the voice that says: let our brokenness be an opening.
This is perhaps best embodied in this Hasidic tale:
In reference to the words of the Shema, The disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”
The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”
The words fall in. The broken heart can allow us to “let in” — wisdom, understanding, faithfulness, hope, acceptance, love– some possibilities.
Let me very clear: I am not saying that bad things happen in our lives in order for us to learn from them or for some greater purpose or instruction. In fact, one of my personal missions in my life is to debunk this kind of thinking! And to do everything in m power to persuade people not to give easy platitudes to those in pain.
However, with the gift of time, I do believe we can learn from, grow from, and even wrest a blessing from brokenness.
I will share a personal example. Many people know that I lost my father, Howard Grabelle, quite suddenly when I had just turned 23 and he had just turned 60. He was otherwise healthy, but being taken care for what seemed very treatable heart disease but died from a rare allergic reaction to a medication, given to him in the course of that treatment. Just like with so many tragic events that have happened in the lives of people in this room, there are no words to adequately describe the enormity of sadness and regret that surrounded my father’s death.
Within the experience of profound loss and grief, I also experienced powerful openings of love and even blessing.
I vividly remember that on the first day of shiva, the president of my father’s Brith Shalom Lodge (whom I had never met) took me aside and told me how my father spoke so proudly of his daughter, the future rabbi. My father died just weeks before I was starting rabbinical school and while he seemed happy for me, I also sensed that as a more secular Jew, he didn’t understand my religious or spiritual fervor. I never heard him express his pride to me directly. In a fleeting moment, this man gave me the lift that will literally last me a lifetime.
Another opening was seeing how much my father’s gentle presence impacted people-including the people who worked at the front desk of the tennis club where my father plated on Sundays–and somehow found out about the funeral, arrived and expressed their profound grief and sadness.
Another blessing was hearing my mother, who is not emotive, speak for the first (and probably last) time in public, sharing words broken up by tears at my father’s unveiling.
Another opening was that I felt deeply held and seen by God and the Universe, as I understand those things. And there are far too many more openings to share.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg offers an update to Rebbe Menachem Mendl, saying: “There is nothing as whole as an OPEN broken heart.”
With open broken hearts, wisdom and love that may have been place “on top” of our hearts might find their way in.
Standing in the Brokenness: Navigating the Tragic Gap
I have been speaking so far about personal brokenness. I want to shift to thinking about how we relate to and take in the brokenness of the world. Just as people have been flocking to therapists this past year to process the realities of our country, so too are people talking to their spiritual leaders, even more than usual, about the despair, anxiety, and pain they are experiencing by virtue of living in these times. Consider just the past few weeks with the devastation of Harvey, Irma, Maria and all those who are suffering today as a result. This is a spiritual issue, not just a political one.
I want to offer a teaching and a frame that I have found particularly significant in wading through the muck of our current day-to-day reality.
It comes not from a midrash but from a contemporary source: Parker Palmer, whom I mentioned before, who speaks about “The Tragic Gap;’ the gap between the truth and reality of our world as we know it and our dreams of how the world should be. These dreams are not based on fantasies but “a possibility we have seen with our own eyes” – through experiences when the best of who we are as a human being has shone through. The gap is tragic, not just because it is sad (though it is) but because it is inevitable, inescapable. Our individual experience of it will be different based on our station in life. And even if it changes shape and form, the gap will never close.
The “space in between” is the brokenness. And our experience of that brokenness can lead us to fall into one of two extremes. On the one hand, we may fall into what he calls “irrelevant idealism,” which can lead us to seek out and be satisfied with simple solutions. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we all got together and had a love-in in Central Park?” Irrelevant Idealism.
On the other hand, we could fall into corrosive cynicism. “We can’t fight climate change so I am not going to bother recycling.” Corrosive cynicism– which leads to despair and disengagement. Given that we are Jews and/or friends of Jews in New York City, I am going to safely assume that most of us fall towards the corrosive cynicism end!
Neither extreme, though, gets us anywhere. If we get overwhelmed by the brokenness, nothing will change. Yet, if we deny the brokenness, nothing will change.
What’s needed for healing, in fact really the only way out, Palmer says, is to step into the brokenness, to hold that tension between our dreams and our realities, and in that space, find the ways in which we can in his words, “call myself and my part of the world towards something better.”
When can hold the tension, without falling to either extreme, and act communally and personally, things do progress. (An important reminder especially today!) Think of all the cumulative actions that led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act, to Marriage Equality. All that has gone into maintaining Health Care in spite of every effort to undermine it. And so on.
If I may say, even though Parker is a progressive Christian, this teaching feels so profoundly Jewish. After all, we are the people who live in the metaphoric gap between the OLAM HAZEH– this world and OLAM HABAH– the world to come, the future world of peace and harmony. And between here and there are mitzvot- actions we take whether or not we will ever live to see that other world emerge.
When we step into the brokenness and pain of what is and act, we find the faith and courage to participate in the ongoing, unceasing work of healing our world.
I have offered three teachings that I hope are meaningful and helpful as we navigate brokenness.
The possibility of tikkun (healing) is present every day, but perhaps most potently on these Days of Awe. These days offer us the chance to go deep inside ourselves, reflect and redirect.
On Rosh HaShanah, we sounded the moving blasts of the shofar. One of those blasts is “shevarim” and we blast them- whole, broken, whole, broken…and so on.
On Kol Nidre, we enter into the quiet. No shofar. Time to allow ourselves to feel and honor whatever is in our hearts.
When we meet back together at the very end of the holiday, after self-affliction, we sound only one shofar blast: the tekiah gedolah, the sound of ultimate wholeness, a calling for us to heal and be whole.
Over this Yom Kippur and throughout our lives, may we accept and honor our broken places, placing them gently in our own ark. May we seek and find openings to new wisdom and expansive love. May we have the courage and faith to mind the tragic gap and call ourselves and our world forward, one step at a time, as individuals and as a community.
Shana Tova, G’mar Hatima Tova, Shabbat Shalom!