Kudos On The Breaking
The Shattering Potential
In my sporadic prayer practice, there is a line in the liturgy that always jumps out at me. It is from Psalm 147, and it describes God as the “healer of the broken hearted and the binder of their wounds.” It is, in and of itself, an incredibly powerful image of the Divine.
Beyond the image, it’s noteworthy that the Psalmist doesn’t shy away from speaking of brokenness and adds that it’s not something that is just fixed. It is a state to which God tends. God doesn’t remove it. God mends it. When a person prays from this liturgy, they are reminded of the divine power that exists in existing with our brokenness.
Brokenness is not only something we face often in our lives. In the Torah portion this week, we read the story of Moses shattering the tablets upon seeing the people dancing and worshipping the golden calf. It is a narrative full of action.
The one I want to focus on is Exodus 34:1. After Moses has shattered 1st tablets, a punishment occurs, Moses argues on behalf of saving the innocent, and God says the following:
“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.
That last phrase is superfluous. Given that Moses was the shatterer, why would God need to remind Moses that the first tablets were the ones “which you shattered?” In Hebrew, that phrase “asher shibarta” is important to note for one of the greatest comments in all of Biblical interpretation is written upon it.
Rashi1, in his final comment to all of the Old Testament, references this moment and says that hidden in that phrase of “asher shibarta” is the meaning of “yasher koach she’shibarta.” Yasher Koach is an expression that Jews use to congratulate others on various occasions. If you’ve read from the Torah, performed a commandment, taught someone something, you might receive a “yasher koach.” Think of it like a kudos or congratulations.
Here, God is telling Moses, “great job on the breaking, buddy.” If you say “yasher koach she’shibarta” rapidly over and over, you can almost start to hear the whisper of a linguistic link to “asher shibarta.” But what is the goodness of this breaking? It contradicts much of what we negatively correlate when something valuable goes to pieces.
Answering this question is Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner2 in his seminal work “Pachad Yitzchak:
The breaking of the tablets was a building the Torah up out of its shattering. This was attested to by the sages who said, “had the tablets not been broken, the Torah would not have been found in Israel. We learn from here a wondrous innovation that it’s possible to grow the Torah by way of “forgetting*” it.
The breaking here, according to Rabbi Hutner, taught the invaluable lesson that sometimes in order to move forward, you need to forget about the wholeness that came before. For the Israelites that remained, it was forgetting about the rupture of that moment. For us, it’s remembering our brokenness need not keep us stuck in the past.
When something breaks, a potential new reality is born. There is always a story to be rewritten. That is the way in which we partner with the Divine in mending our own brokenness. The late poet Mary Oliver said it even more beautifully in her poem titled Breakage:
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It's like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
A good shattering indeed.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend, friends!
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki-11th century France
20th century: Europe, Israel, and the United States. Chanukah Maamar 1:4