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September 20, 2017

Nothing More Whole Than a Broken Heart (Rosh Hashanah 5778)

Angela W. Buchdahl

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Tonight, we celebrate the birthday of the world, which is Five thousand, Seven hundred and Seventy-eight years old! (Give or take a few billion years.) Even Mother Earth is a little sensitive about her age.

When we think of the birth of the world, most of us recall the creation story found in Genesis: First God creates celestial Lights. Creatures existing in Harmony. Adam and Eve living in the Garden of Eden. God creates a world of perfection. But soon enough, there is trouble in paradise, and—Fast-forwarding past the serpent, the forbidden fruit, and the sudden shame in nudity—we humans find ourselves kicked out of the Garden. We then spend our lives trying to get back to where we began—to Gan Eden—which was Paradise.

In my experience, however, this creation narrative does not ring exactly true. Every creation project that I’ve ever experienced, from childbirth, to home renovations, to… writing high holiday sermons, is much messier than that. And if we have to measure ourselves against an original state of perfection, we would never escape our own deficiency and inadequacy. We would live lives of apology for all that we are not, or of anger for all that was lost…now that we are no longer…in Eden.

But Kabbalah, our Jewish mystical tradition, offers a very different creation narrative, one that acknowledges the very impossibility of perfection. In the beginning—God’s presence filled the universe. Because God was everywhere, there was no room for anything else. So God had to contract, like a deep inhale, in order to make space in which to create the world. The mystics called this divine contraction tsimtsum. In that newfound space, God created darkness. God then poured a stream of Divine Light into ten vessels. But these vessels could not withstand such awesome, primordial energy. They shattered, showering holy sparks everywhere. Human beings were created to find these splinters of divine light, to make a tikkun—a repair—by helping God gather them together and lifting up these broken pieces, to restore and re-create the world.

What a strange, chaotic and beautiful narrative our mystical tradition has left us. One that acknowledges without apology today’s imperfect world. One that asserts that brokennessnot perfection, is our true inheritance. With this story of creation as our guide, our task is not to search in vain for some lost paradise, but to seek out tiny sparks of light in the divine debris that is all around us. To find holiness in the broken and imperfect.

I thought of this creation story while reading about Ussain Bolt, the fastest human being in the history of the world, the record holder in both the 100 and 200 meters, and the only person to win both events in three consecutive Olympics. Watching him run is an electrifying experience; he’s almost superhuman.

Scientists, of course, have studied his running in an effort to understand how Bolt could be so darn fast. They found something completely unexpected. His stride is dramatically uneven; his left foot stays on the ground 14% longer than his right. Conventional science asserts that an uneven stride slows a runner down. And what’s more—Bolt’s irregularity comes from a fundamentally unbalanced body. You see, severe scoliosis curved his spine and made his right leg half an inch shorter than his left! Scientists are left scratching their heads. Could it be that his imperfect body is the secret to his supernatural speed?

Many of the greatest artists, musicians, and thinkers of all time had something materially “flawed” about them. Beethoven wrote his finest symphonies while going deaf. Virginia Woolf expanded our conception of literature and Vincent Van Gogh our way of seeing color, while they both struggled deeply with mental illness. Stephen Hawking is confined to a wheelchair and needs computer-assisted speech to help the rest of us understand the secrets of the universe. But the mystical story of creation helps us understand that their genius did not necessarily come despite their pain, or imperfection, or disability; it may well have derived precisely from their broken shards, where the divine spark resides.

The Kabbalists would say that every one of us is an unfinished vessel. Too often, we see our growing edges as deficiency, weakness, vulnerability. But what if the cracks in our own lives are what enables us to find our light?

A simple folk tale relates this mystical idea in a beautiful image: A water carrier had two large pots, each hung on an end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots was perfect and sound, while the other pot was cracked and leaked, arriving only half full at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house.

For a full two years this went on daily. The perfect pot was naturally proud of itself and its superior water-carrying capability. But the leaking pot felt miserable and dejected, and one day by the stream it spoke to the water bearer: “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.” “Why?” asked the water bearer. “What are you ashamed of?” “Look at me!  I am defective!” the pot said. “I have ONE JOB. But with this crack in my side, I’m only able to deliver half my load at best.”

The water bearer smiled and said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to show you something.” He pointed to the well-worn path they took each day, and for the first time the pot stopped looking inward and instead looked outside itself. Only then, did the pot notice a ribbon of color edging its side of the path. “I’ve always known you leaked,” the water carrier said. “And so I planted seeds under you, and thanks to you, these flowers have been nourished to full bloom.”

This story is a great analogy for the role of every rabbi, teacher, mentor and parent. It teaches us to recognize what is sacred about every one of God’s creatures, with all our cracks, and to know how and where to plant the right seeds. Had the water carrier seen the pot’s only purpose as carrying water up a hill—it would always feel deficient and would not understand that perhaps it had a whole other reason for being; That its brokenness could actually bring a different kind of beauty into this world.

Those of us who are parents often worry about or lament, our children’s cracked places. What if we could accept and love the differences in every child and find a way to nourish what is unique? To understand that perhaps they have another aspiration for the world than we had originally planned.

Two of my greatest models for this outlook are Mitch Rubin and Audra Zuckerman, members of this congregation, who, along with their son Max, gave me their blessing to share their story today. Max, now 18, was born with Down Syndrome. The best way to describe Max is as a “force of love.” Max started coming to services regularly before his bar mitzvah and would sing joyously and unabashedly. Tonight, you got to hear him as part of our teen choir.

Max had a viral internet moment several years ago when he watched his beloved Mets play in a subway series game. He was sitting nice and close to field, and as David Wright was walking up to the plate, Max called out “Hit a home run!” in the way that only Max can do. Well, Wright did exactly that, and the Mets went on to win. After Wright circled the bases, he trotted over to Max’s seat to thank him for the encouragement.

But what made the video so popular was that Max wasn’t satisfied with a high five. He went in for the hug—a signature Max Rubin bear-hug while he ruffled David Wright’s hair. Captured in that exchange was not only Max’s emphatic excitement and affection, but the purity of his human connection. Without self-consciousness of whether or not it was his place to give an “Atta boy” to a superstar.

Mitch explained to me that an adjustment was necessary when Max first entered their lives: “Max was born and he had this extra chromosome and it changed everything, it was not what we expected. We had some preconceived ideas about who our child was going to be and at first we mourned that that was not going to be our child. But once we saw what we got, and embraced how unbelievably amazing it is—things opened up. True humanity and passion…and love come from the ability to live with what you get—not what you thought you would get. We are better parents, better life partners, better people because of Max.”

Down Syndrome does not always make things easy for Max. But he will be the first to tell you, “I have this extra chromosome and that’s what makes me awesome.”

In his best-selling book Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon quotes the writer Clara Claiborne Park about her experience of raising an autistic daughter: “I write now what 15 years past I would still not have thought possible to write: that if today I were given the choice to accept the experience, with everything that it entails, or to refuse the bitter largesse, I would have to stretch out my hands— because out of it has come, for all of us, an unimagined life. And I will not change the last word of the story. It is still love.”

These remarkable parents, and many others in this congregation who inspire me, found the divine spark in their child and nourished it.  They have helped teach me that the world is more beautiful because we are all varied and surprising and imperfect. This is a theological vision.  God doesn’t make mistakes.

Sometimes our brokenness comes suddenly, shattering the careful balance we make of our lives.  We lose a loved one. We receive a diagnosis. We lose a job. We discover an infidelity. We take a fall. The loss of what we once had devastates us, and can make us feel angry, abandoned or alone. It takes an act of will, of courage, to grow from loss.

But we read in the Psalms: Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev, “God is close to the brokenhearted.” The pain of loss can invite us to call for God or community in unexpected ways. There are many leaders of our congregation who shared with me that their involvement in Central came directly out of a loss of a parent, a spouse, or an illness. And sometimes that sense of closeness to God is felt through the sacred kindness of other people—the friend who accompanied you to your chemo treatments.  The sibling who apologized as you buried a parent together. The neighbor who quietly bought you meals after a loss.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk an 18th Century Hasidic rabbi wrote: Eyn davar shalem yoter malev shavur, “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” Most of us don’t feel whole in our brokenheartedness, we feel inadequacy, sadness or even shame. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which we are encouraged to keep our broken edges hidden. Mental illness, financial worries, addiction, family strife, we endure all of this in the shadows. We even speak of death in euphemisms: “He passed.” or “She is at Rest,” as if death were just an extended naptime. We have been taught to avoid facing the pain of life straight on.  And sometimes we DO find the courage to accept our broken pieces, only to find that our loved ones cannot, which can make us feel even more isolated and alone.  Most of us would rather just put some caulk in those cracks, keep busy, and try to move forward without addressing the heartache.

I know I am guilty of doing this myself. I feel like I have to. I feel responsible for a lot of people: my three children, my husband, my aging parents and, of course, ...the Jewish people. I find that I will often deny, or dismiss, or just ignore the cracks in my own life because I feel I can’t afford ever—to be broken.

But looking back on my life, I know that my essential character and identity was forged in some of my most painful moments: In the weight of post-partum depression as a new mom, or the sting of rejection in being told repeatedly that I’m “not a real Jew,” as a product of intermarriage, or the sadness—and guilt, of living 3,000 miles away from my parents, especially as they get older. I would not have chosen these darker chapters, but without them, I know I would not be the human being that I am. In covering up our cracks, avoiding what feels painful, papering over our losses, ignoring our imperfect or broken relationships—we miss an essential part of our humanity—we cannot be whole.

Many have said that religion’s goal is “To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I would put it somewhat differently, though: Judaism’s goal is “To make whole what is broken, and to break what feels whole.”  What other tradition would take what is supposed to be one of the most perfect, joyous days of our lives—our wedding—and end it with the breaking of a glass?  Moses never discards the broken fragments of the first set of tablets he had smashed, but carries them alongside the finished tablets in the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle. The ark could not be complete without both.

Make whole what is broken.  And break what feels whole. And during these Days of Awe, I would say—all the more so. At this point, I know some of you are sitting there thinking: That’s nice, Rabbi.  But I’m doing great. No complaints. I’m not broken.

If you have come here tonight on Rosh Hashanah and feel that there is nothing to examine, no wound in your life to heal, no relationship to repair—then I hope you will listen especially closely to the shofar. Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom Teruah—the Day for the Sounding of the Shofar. The purpose of the Shofar blast is to shake us up, and to disturb our status quo. The shofar call, “Shevarim,” literally means BROKEN. And if you do not feel any cracks emerge from that sonic signal, you might ask yourself if you’ve truly fulfilled your obligation to hear it.

For the shofar blast should be a wake up call that reminds us to dig a little deeper, to bear into what is hard, to stop living life on the surface of it all. To return to our fractured relationships.  To lean into the grief that you’re feeling for someone you lost. To examine the imperfections that we constantly criticize and then, to get curious. Perhaps this pain—this flaw—this broken heart—has a purpose.

On Rosh Hashanah, in this new year, let go of that MYTHICAL creation story of the Garden of Eden and its perfect paradise. Embrace the messier, MYSTICAL story of creation where divine sparks of God’s light get scattered through fragments of our fractured universe. That brokenness is all around us. And inside each one of us. Unearth its meaning, confront its terrible beauty, and we may realize that true divinity is in that broken shard that cut us in the first place. God has given us a sacred task and opportunity: to make our own tikkun. But in the coming year, instead of trying to make our broken parts whole, may you find in them—what is most holy.