Adonai said to Moses: "Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered." (Exodus 34:1)
In the Talmud, we read that the remains of the first set of tablets, which Moses shattered, were carried in the Ark along with the replacement set (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 8b). Even during this z'man simchateinu, "season of our joy," we still carry the reminder of the broken lives that our ancestors led prior to the Exodus when we recite zeicher l'tziat Mitzrayim, "in memory of the Exodus from Egypt," as part of the Festival Kiddush.
All of us are touched by brokenness-an illness, the death of a loved one, an abusive relationship, unfulfilled hopes-experiences that, while difficult and negative, also define our character and become part of our history. Much like the shards of the tablets carried in the Ark, we carry these painful learning experiences as we continue on our way. Negative events can become opportunities for growth, creating situations in which we face challenges posed by brokenness and, hopefully, emerge as changed human beings for the better.
In many ways, my battle with infertility was such a challenge. For several years, my husband and I tried to become pregnant, with no success. There were innumerable frustrations and times of deep sadness along our journey, leaving us feeling broken and helpless as we persevered through a wilderness of options. Each round of in vitro fertilization brought high hopes but yielded despair. In the end, the blessing of giving birth to twin girls, Rebecca and Jessica, on October 2, 2003, was profoundly treasured, perhaps even more so because of the struggle to conceive.
Caring for the twins presented other challenges. Rebecca was diagnosed with a rare syndrome, M-CMTC, which manifests itself in a variety of physical ways, including an enlarged head and, in her case, too much fluid on the brain. Trips to the emergency room, a week in the hospital, brain surgery, and developmental delays were unwelcome, but nonetheless, they were growth experiences for us. And I can say that it all builds character-what doesn't kill you does make you stronger. While fear of the unknown and a sense of helplessness abound, the parental instinct does kick in when we feel ready to do anything for our child to make sure she gets off to a good start. There are still many unanswered questions about this rare condition. How will Rebecca develop as she gets older? Will she eventually catch up with her peers? How will her schoolmates treat her? In the meantime, Rebecca and Jessica are blessings in our lives, and we are richer from the experience of having them and cherish them immensely.
Every one of us is presented with opportunities to see and react to brokenness. We have all known the elderly congregant who does not feel welcome at an Oneg Shabbat, or the challenged bar or bat mitzvah student who struggles to find his or her self-esteem on this most significant occasion. We have the opportunity to empower and instill confidence, to provide the tools to take what is broken and treat it as holy.
The broken tablets, forever holy, remind us to be sensitive to those who are struggling in life. Like a broken siddur, caringly deposited in a genizah, a special repository for holy objects that can no longer be used, we are reminded that humans are holy even in their brokenness: the elderly, the physically and mentally handicapped, and those suffering from long-term illness. Respect for and acceptance of human beings-no matter how flawed-is a paramount virtue, a mitzvah to achieve in our thoughts and our actions.
By the Way
- . . . And be careful with the honor of an elderly scholar who has involuntarily forgotten his Torah learning, for we say that the second set of tablets and broken pieces of the first tablets both rest in the Ark. (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 8b)
- The Reform Jewish Movement envisions a society in which the inherent dignity of every individual is valued-not merely in rhetoric, but in the laws and practices of our institutions of government. As we pledged in a 1981 resolution supporting the rights of the disabled, we have and will continue to "work actively for equal rights and accessibility for disabled persons." Accordingly, we have strived to make our synagogues and office buildings, as well as our prayer services, accessible to all; and we have worked with like-minded organizations to urge the government to ensure handicap accessibility. (Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism's response on May 18, 2004, to the Supreme Court's decision in Tennessee v. Lane, upholding the right under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of people with disabilities to sue for damages when states are not in compliance with the act's accessibility requirements).
- [In Shel Silverstein's The Missing Piece, a circle is missing a chunk of its body and embarks on a journey in search of its missing piece. Its brokenness compels it to roll along slowly, allowing it to smell the flowers along its leisurely way. After many futile attempts, it finds a perfect fit and can now roll along at a faster speed; however, it misses all the beauty along its way. The poem appears below.]
It was missing a piece.
And it was not happy.
So it set off in search
of its missing piece.
And as it rolled
it sang this song-
"Oh I'm lookin' for my missin' piece
I'm lookin' for my missin' piece
Hi-dee-ho, here I go,
Lookin' for my missin' piece."
(Shel Silverstein, The Missing Piece [New York City: HarperCollins Children's Books, 1976] pp. 1-5)
- Who are the members of society or your community who are challenged with brokenness?
- How does your synagogue make the broken members of your community feel welcomed? For example, are the following available: large-print prayer books, enhanced-hearing devices, wheelchair accessibility?
Judith A. Seplowin is the cantor at Temple Beth-El, Providence, Rhode Island.
Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, Exodus 33:12–34:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 657–661; Revised Edition, pp. 592–596;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 508–512