“Luchot v’shivre luchot menuchim ba’aron” — “The whole tablets and the broken tablets rested inside the Ark of the Covenant” (Babah Batra 14b). The whole and the broken rest together in our sacred covenant.
This past week we read in our Torah portion Yitro about the receiving of the Ten Commandments. And in a few weeks, we will read in the Torah portion Ki Tisa about Moses coming down the mountain, bringing from God the tablets. Before the tablets can be given to the people of Israel, they become broken, as Moses hurls them in his anger as part of his response to the building of the golden calf.
This is one of our national low points — having quickly lost confidence in our leader and having demanded an idol be built, and Moses acting upon his anger to destroy that which had been written by God. And yet, our tradition teaches us to redeem this low point, these broken shards, and to place them in our sacred ark with the new, whole, unbroken second set of tablets.
I frequently reflect on this teaching of the broken and whole tablet pieces being housed together in the ark. I wonder about how the broken tablets made it into the ark. Did Moses pick them up himself, or was he too angry or disappointed that he could not help collect them? Was there one person or a team of people working on it together? Did they get cut picking up the shards or were they able to collect them without getting hurt? Were they aware of the sanctity amongst these shards?
One of our greatest challenges today is allowing the broken and the whole to live peacefully together. I see this problem on two different levels — in the internal and the external.
How do we enable the broken and the whole within our souls to coexist? How are we kind to the broken bits of our souls? How do we give them attention, attend to them and see them as a source of growth and vision into our souls, rather than run away from them or bury them deep.
And how do we create sacred communities to allow the broken souls and the whole souls rest side by side? It is so easy to label people who appear different as broken, overlooking their humanity and their wisdom, forgetting they too are created in God’s image, and how our communities are richer when they welcome and treasure the diversity of our population, welcoming all and the gifts they bring.
The rabbis of the Talmud understood how easy it was to dismiss what appeared as shards and brokenness. R. Yehoshua ben Levi cautions his children:
Be careful regarding how you treat an elderly individual who has forgotten his learning due to an extenuating circumstance (i.e., old age, sickness, accident, struggle, to make a livelihood, as opposed to where his learning may have deserted him due to lack of interest, belief, or regular review). As we say, “The Tablets as well as the broken pieces of the Tablets were placed in the Ark.” (Talmud Berachot 8b and Menachot 99b)
The ark’s contents are not complete without both, and yet we so often fool ourselves into believing we are complete when we cut off or deny the brokenness within ourselves, and when we close our communities to those who seem more broken, more in need, than we are.
Experiencing brokenness does not make us less holy, less worthy, less the object of God’s love. Our brokenness may enable us to reach higher than we ever did before.
The Talmud’s discussion of Moses’ broken tablets continues: “The broken tablets were set at the bottom of the ark, and the complete set was arranged right on top, the broken set forming a steady base, a foundation for the new set.”
Not only are the broken and the whole together in the ark, but the broken form the foundation for the new set. These broken tablets may even be allowing the new tablets to reach higher than they would have on their own, and bring with them their own richness and importance.
This teaching of the important roles both broken and whole vessels play is shared by many cultures. Yosef Jacobson tells the story of an elderly Chinese woman who owned two large pots:
Each hung on the end of a pole, which she carried every day on her shoulders to fill with water from the stream located at the end of the village. One of the pots was complete and always delivered a full portion of water; the other pot was cracked and arrived home each day only half full.
Of course, the complete pot was proud of its accomplishments. The poor cracked pot, on the other hand, was ashamed of its own imperfections and that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.
After six years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, the humbled broken pot finally opened its heart to the woman at the stream. “I hate myself,” the cracked pot cried, “I am so useless and valueless. What purpose does my existence have when each day I leak out half of my water? I am such a loser!”
The old woman smiled and said, “Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? Every day while we walk back from the stream, you have the opportunity to water them.
“For six years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate our home. Without you being just the way you are, we would have never created this beauty together.”
May we too see and be able to integrate the holiness of both our fragmented and whole pieces.