Mystery of The Broken Tablets, 5773/2012

A Torah Mystery: Actually, a double Torah Mystery! We remember the time in the Torah, back in Exodus, when Moses has climbed Mt. Sinai, and was up there for forty days as the people waited – not too patiently – down at the bottom of the mountain.

He’s up there longer than the people expected. And these newly freed Israelite slaves began to get very nervous. Where was this leader of theirs? Where was this God of theirs?

The frightened people began to get very agitated, and started to rebel against Aaron, Moses’ brother. They demanded that he make a god for them, an image of the God that brought them out of Egypt.

Understand this was not a mildly disgruntled committee of Israelites, calmly dropping by Aaron’s tent on a Sunday morning as he was reading the paper, to politely present a few alternative ideas to this apparently invisible and absent God.

No, this was a traumatized, frightened, furious, near-violent mob who came at Aaron in a riotous and threatening manner. They’d been through a lot. Just months ago, they were slaves in Egypt. There were these horrific plagues, the death of the Egyptian first-born, and the sudden fleeing from everything that was familiar to them. There was the parting of the Sea, the dramatic escape, the crushing death and drowning of the Egyptian army.

And now, here they were, confused, upset, yet told to wait at the bottom of the Mountain. Wait for Moses to commune with their God, and then . . . they didn’t know what.

So, in their fear and need for something to hold on to, they forced Aaron to make them a god; actually a physical representation of the God of Israel. The biggest of all no no’s.

This was one of the great traumas of our early history. From our perspective, it may seem as if the people, newly freed about to get the Torah, should have been rejoicing, elated, optimistic. Yet it was a time of fear, panic, transition from a life that was painful but familiar, to a life that would be . . . well, they didn’t know what it would be.

So a Golden Calf is made for them.

We’re not sure why Aaron agreed to do it. Maybe he was scared of the mob? Maybe he was just trying to keep them occupied until his brother returned?

Aaron told the Israelites to bring their gold jewelry, from the earrings of their men, women, sons and daughters.

So, there they were, worshipping their new “idol”; o ering sacrifices, and then getting down for some serious partying, drinking and carousing. This is that moment that so captured the imaginations of great artists over the centuries; this idolatrous orgy around this golden calf is depicted by Chagall, Rembrandt, Raphael, Poussin and so many others.

God at this point becomes furious over the people’s infidelity. He told Moses what was going on and commanded that Moses go down the Mountain, and immediately stop the people.

Poor Moses, he had really thought that the people had finally turned a corner, and had finally left their old Egyptian ways behind and were ready for this magnificent gift of Torah and freedom.

He came down around the Mountain and saw this idolatrous, drunken orgy around this molten, false god . . . he became as furious as God.

In his fury, at this lowest point in our people’s brief history, Moses took the Tablets, inscribed by the very finger of God, raised them up, and smashed the Ten Commandments to the ground.

These tablets were the most sacred of objects. They were to be an eternal symbol of the relationship between the God of the Universe, and humanity here on earth.

Smashed. A profound moment of pain, destruction, loss, disappointment, brokenness and shame.

After some serious divine retribution, God did then give Moses a second set of Tablets. A second chance. A new beginning. That whole, complete set of tablets, inscribed with the Commandments, remained in the possession of our people for well over 500 years until they were looted and taken from the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

Now the mystery: what happened to the broken pieces? The smashed Tablets? These most precious objects ever to exist, shattered.

They now represented a dark moment in our past. A moment we might want to forget. Would they bury them?; Would they try to forget them and simply leave them where they were, or grind them into dust and throw them to the winds in the hope that the memory of this whole episode would fade away?

Our people long pondered the fate of the broken tablets. Mysteriously, we never hear about them again in the Biblical story.


But centuries later, the Talmud reveals that “the complete second unbroken set of tablets, as well as the broken fragments of the first set, were placed in the Ark of the Covenant. The first set of tablets shattered by Moses resided with the second unbroken set. Even brokenness and fragments retain holiness and warrant respect and reverence.” (B.T. Berachot 8b and B.T. Bava Batra 14b) (As cited by Rabbi Sheldom Zimmerman.)

They were not buried, as we bury a Torah when it can no longer be used. They were not left there, and ignored in an attempt to forget them and their painful story.

They were placed at the heart of the community. At the heart of the Tabernacle. The people were commanded to build an Ark. The Ark of the Covenant. That beautiful golden box, carried on the shoulders of priests, in which the symbolic soul of the Jewish people was lovingly carried with them, and which lived, with God’s presence, in the Holy of Holies.

Inside the Ark of the Covenant were the two new tablets of the Ten Commandments, alongside the broken pieces of the first tablets.

But why? Why literally enshrine these damaged memories? Is that even healthy?

Isn’t it best to let go of the past? Not to dwell on the pains and the mistakes? Live in the present! Live for the future!

Yet for some reason, our people chose not to let them go or forget them. But to A) carry the broken and shattered tablets of their most painful moment, B) alongside the whole and complete tablets of their most glorious encounter with God.

In his novel, A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway wrote that oft quoted phrase, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” Strong in the broken places.

Hemmingway was unknowingly echoing our ancient experience; that we ancient Jews became even stronger by embracing our broken pieces alongside our whole places.

Because that’s who we were; neither just our broken past nor our whole and perfect parts; we were instead a real human people; a true to life blend of our pains and our triumphs.

I know that’s who I am; an inseparable mixture of my good experiences and strengths along with my weaknesses, my disappointments, my mistakes and my hurts.

We Jews must have some sense that there is significant value in recognizing our broken places; some role for them to play in our moving forward! After all, here we are embarking on a 24 hour journey whose purpose is to discover, enumerate, admit and fully expose our broken pieces to the Creator of the Universe.

Will it help to make us “Stronger in the Broken Places”?

I remembered a book with that title, and I googled it. I was astounded to see the long, long list of books with the title: Strong In The Broken Places, followed by innumerable subtitles:

Voices of illness, a chorus of hope Poems after 9/11
A plan behind the pain
Surviving sexual abuse

Women who have survived drugs

Does it really work that way? Do we really get strong in the broken places? Physically? Spiritually? Emotionally?

The physical part was the easiest to look into. I called my Doctor and asked, “Is it true that when we break a bone and it heals that it’s stronger than it was before?”

He did what good Doctors do. He called an orthopedist. Who said, “It depends on how you treat it. At first you have to be very gentle with it. If you ignore it, don’t take care of it, don’t watch your diet, avoid the physical therapist. Then, it certainly won’t be stronger than before.

But, if you take good care of it, gently at first, follow through with all of your therapy, and work it hard to get it strong again . . . then yes, it could well be stronger than it was before. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.”

And there are emotional ways we can be broken. What do we do with those pieces? Here is a case study that comes from the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation: A story of a man who found a way to become strong in the broken places.

“Michael MacDonald grew up in South Boston in a public housing project hit hard by poverty, alcohol abuse and drug related crime and illness. As a teenager, he watched as his mother was hit by a stray bullet in her own kitchen. His beautiful sister Kathy su ered terrible brain damage when she fell from a roof during an argument with her boyfriend. His oldest brother Davy su ered a nervous breakdown at age fourteen. Some years later, Michael watched helplessly as Davy jumped to his death from the roof of their apartment building.

After this, the funerals began to blur for Michael. His brother Kevin, while still grieving over Frank’s death, died mysteriously in prison. But for Michael, his mother and his family, the tragedy was not over yet. When his thirteen year old brother’s best friend, Tommy was killed while playing with a gun, his brother was falsely accused of murder. Michael came to realize how truly powerless he, his family and his community were to prevent these tragedies. He worked feverishly to clear his brother, investigating falsified police reports and inaccurate laboratory tests.

Concurrently, he decided to counteract his feelings of grief, rage and helplessness by joining with other people who were fighting violence throughout the city. Knowing that so much of the sadness in his life was caused by guns, Michael helped organize a gun buy back program, and focused on getting lethal weapons out of the hands of young people. The program was a stunning success; in four years almost three thousand guns were collected and destroyed, a key part of the citywide campaign that resulted in a huge decline in youth violence in Boston. For Michael, the highlight of the program occurred when a priest turned in a .357 Magnum handgun that had been given to him by a thirteen year old boy. Tommy, the friend of Michael’s brother who had died at the age of thirteen, was killed by a .357 Magnum. At about the same time Michael’s e orts to clear his brother’s name ended in the dismissal of all the charges against him.

Even though this particular event helped to bring a tragic part of Michael’s life full circle for him, he realized that the grieving and the healing process never really stops. He has learned that the way to keep the memory of his brothers alive is through his continuing work in the community. “I bring my brothers to work with me everyday,” Michael says, “I bring Tommy to work with me too, and it’s great. I feel like I spend more time with them than I do with the rest of my family, sometimes.”

(STRONG AT THE BROKEN PLACES: Turning Trauma Into Recovery, The Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation)

Michael’s story is of such an extreme nature. We would all hope that no one of us here has to live through what he lived through.

He embraced, and then was strengthened by his broken pieces. He “brings his brothers to work with him every day”; a powerful echo of the ancient Israelites taking their broken pieces with them, wherever they went.

And finally, the hardest shattering of all: The Broken Places Losing a Child.

David Roberts wrote, “That first part of Hemmingway’s quote, “The world breaks everyone,” may seem on the surface to be both morbid and fatalistic. The reality is that if we live long enough, we will become broken by events in the world that are tragic and painful beyond belief. I believe that loss breaks everyone to one degree or another.

When my daughter Jeannine died in 2003, at the age of 18, many parts of me were broken. My faith, my trust in a greater good, my values, my hopes for the future, were all shattered beyond recognition. During my early grief, I never fathomed that the broken parts of me could ever be fixed. I could not visualize experiencing joy again.

I am in the ninth year of my journey as a parent who has experienced the death of a child and I have been able to find joy and meaning again. In essence, I became stronger at the places that were broken after Jeannine’s death. I did it by reading about other parents who became stronger at their broken places after their children died, and finding out how they did it. I also availed myself of the support of other parents who understood my pain and together we discovered how to fix the broken places.

Fixing the broken places of our grief does not mean that our world returns to the way it was before our children died, or that the pain of our loss ever truly goes away. What I believe we learn to do is fix the broken places of our grief in a way that allows us to find significance in a world that is di erent without our children. Understanding that our relationships with our children continue after they cross over and that they communicate signs of their presence has also helped fix the broken places of my grief.

There is no time frame for fixing the broken places of our grief. It will take as long as it takes. As long as you are willing to work through your pain of loss, you will eventually learn new ways of dealing with it. Also keep in mind that hope for the promise of a new world after the death of our children, can come from the most unlikely of sources. Just be open to it happening and embrace it when it does.

(David Roberts 2011 Death of a Child, Spirituality by David Roberts.)
We all have some broken pieces that we need to carry with us to become

whole. Tonight we ask: Have we worked to let them become strong places?

Many of us in recent years have lost jobs. And that is truly shattering. But, we hear increasingly of those who embrace those pieces, build them back into a new situation of work that is sometimes even better than the job left behind. And we are humbled. And we are stronger.

Those of us of all ages have had friendships come to end. Some times we are able to pick up those pieces, and become even better friends to those still in our lives, and to new friends to come.

One could be a teenager with a shattered and broken heart. But if you allow time to begin the healing, and work to make your heart whole again, there is a very good chance that it will be stronger than before, and that you will love better than before.

Overcoming a learning disability, or a physical disability, you can then take the many abilities you do have and make yourself so much stronger than before. There are many of you here who show such strength.

Sometimes things that are broken are indeed opportunities for great strength: Yitzhak Perlman at Carnegie Hall

(email from 2007. I think from the NYTimes)

“The violinist made his way onto the stage. The welcoming applause filled Carnegie Hall as he sat down, unbuckled his leg braces and smiled. He placed his instrument under his chin and prepared to begin. (Mendelssohn? Brahms? Don’t remember. Doesn’t matter.)

He had played only several measures into the concert when a string popped – – – loudly. Distressed by the ‘zinging’ sound and the obvious need for a new violin, the audience feared the performance would be delayed. But no. Perlman shook his head and began again. Somehow, he then played the entire piece with only three strings. Beautifully. How?

When the standing ovation and amazed “bravos” were exhausted, Perlman said: Sometimes it falls to each of us to make as much music as we can with what we have.”

May we all embrace our broken places, find strength from that embrace,
and then make as much music as we can, with what we have.