Our tradition teaches us that contained in the Aron – the Ark of the Covenant that the Israelites carried through the wilderness – were the two sets of tablets that God gave to Israel at Sinai. There was the one complete set, on which was inscribed the words of the Ten Commandments, and then there were the shards of the first set, which Moses had smashed out of anger when saw the people dancing around the golden calf. Both the whole and the shattered were considered equally holy, equally important. The undamaged and the broken equally received the same honor. From this teaching we can learn much. The smashing of the tablets is described in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, gives an alternative explanation about how the original tablets were destroyed. When God saw that the People of Israel had constructed the golden calf in the camp, God tried to grab the tablets away from Moses on the top of Sinai. But Moses, the Midrash explains, was strong. A tug of war ensued between God and Moses and, as a result, the tablets were shattered.
The rabbinic commentator then asks: why did God never rebuke Moses for breaking the tablets? Obviously, under the circumstances, God would have preferred to keep the tablets rather than hand them to an idolatrous people. But it was better for Israel that the tablets be smashed on the earth rather than remain complete in God’s hands. If Moses had not brought the first tablets down and smashed them to the shock of the people, there never would have been an opportunity for Moses’ return to the mountaintop to fetch the replacement tablets for a redeemed Israel. The breaking of the tablets provided the opportunity for the “stiff-necked” People of Israel to renew their relationship with God and reaffirm their covenant through Torah. This is the concept of “Lo ba-shamayim hi — It is not in Heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12), which suggests that God’s commands are not overwhelming but rather close to human hearts and capabilities. The whole point of Torah is to direct the human spirit and meet human needs. There is no need for Torah in the heavenly realm.
The breaking of the tablets also provides another insight into the ongoing struggles of life. The shards of the broken tablets remind us of the continuous opportunity for growth and renewal. There is always another chance to redeem ourselves; always the possibility of repentance.
This is the message of our Jewish tradition: life is never perfect. But that realization need not lead to despair. Rather than focus on some ideal afterlife or messianic perfection, Judaism has always been more concerned with our imperfect human state and providing guidance for healing and repair — Tikkun. This is our strength: we have learned to value and embrace the pieces and from them construct something even stronger.
We see this reflected in some of our best-known Jewish rituals. At the end of a wedding ceremony we break a glass to remind us that a shattered marriage can never be put back together in the same way. Marriage is never easy but from the shattered glass we learn to value the pieces, the moments of greatest intimacy, partnership and support, and on that foundation we can build a relationship of holiness.
When we become mourners, we perform Keriah — literally “tearing”. As we suffer a tear in the fabric of our lives we identify ourselves as mourners through a tear in the garment we wear. Symbolically, the message is that the time will come when we can sew the garment back together again. The tear is never permanent. We can repair the damage. We can become whole again. It won’t be perfect and it will never be the same, but it can be fixed. The scars on our bodies and souls will begin to fade, but the scar tissue that remains is often stronger than the unblemished tissue it replaced.
We desperately want to believe that everything is going to be all right. Perhaps there is a place somewhere in the divine realm where that is true. But we live in this world and here the truth is that there are times when things come apart. But, as we grow and mature, we come to learn from these experiences; we learn to appreciate the pieces. The most beautiful mosaics are made from broken pieces, as are the most beautiful lives. The most important lesson in life is not how to avoid becoming broken. It is to learn how to recycle the pieces and rebuild.