Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The wholeness of the broken: Yom Kippur 5766

Dr. Naomi Remen tells the following story:
One of the angriest people I have ever worked with was a young man with osteogenic
sarcoma of the right leg. He had been a high school and college athlete and until the time of his diagnosis his life had been good. Beautiful women, fast cars, personal recognition. Two weeks after his diagnosis, they had removed his right leg above the knee. This surgery, which saved his life, also ended his life. Playing ball was a thing of the past.
These days there are many sorts of self-destructive behaviors open to an angry young man like this. He refused to return to school. He began to drink heavily, to use drugs, to alienate his former admirers and friends, and to have on automobile accident after another. After the second of these, his former coach called and referred him to me.
He was a powerfully built and handsome young man, profoundly self-oriented and isolated. At the beginning, he had the sort of rage that felt very familiar to me. Filled with a sense of injustice and self- pity, he hated all the well people. In our second meeting, hoping to encourage him to show his feelings about himself, I gave him a drawing pad and asked him to draw a picture of his body. he drew a crude sketch of a vase, just an outline. Runing through the center of it he drew a deep crack. he went over and over the crack with a black crayon, gritting his teeth and ripping the paper. he had tears in his eyes. They were tears of rage. It seemed to me that the drawing was a powerful statement of his pain and the finality of his loss. It was clear that this broken vase could never hold water, could never function as a vase again. It hurt to watch. After he left, I folded the
picture up and saved it. It seemed too important to throw away.
In time, his anger began to change in subtle ways. he began one session by
handing me an article torn from our local newspaper. it was an article about a motorcycle accident in which a young man had lost his leg. His doctors were quoted at length. I finihsed reading it and looked up. "Those idiots don't know the first thing about it, " he said furiously. Over the next month he brought in more of these articles, some from the paper and some from magazines: a girl who had ben severely burned in a house fire, a boy whose hand had been partly destroyed in the explosion of his chemistry set. His reactions were always the same, a harsh judgement of the well-meaning efforts of doctors and parents. His anger about these other young people began to occupy more and more of our session time. No one understood them, no one was there for them, no one really knew how to help them. He was still enraged, but it seemed to me that underneath this anger a concern for others was growing. Encouraged, I asked him if he wanted to do anything about it. Caught by surprise, at first he said no. But, just before he left he asked me if I thought he could meet some of these others who suffered injuries like his.
People came to our teaching hospital from all over the world, and the chances were good that there were some with the sorts of injuries that mattered to him. I said that I thought it was quite possible and I would look into it. Within a few weeks, he had begun to visit young people on the surgical wards whose problems were similar to his own.
He came back from these visits full of stories, delighted to find that he could reach young people. He was often able to be of help when no one else could. After a while he felt able to speak to parents and families, helping them to better understand and to know what was needed. The surgeons, delighted with the results of these visits, referred more and more people to him.
Some of these doctors had seen him play ball and they began to spend a little time with him. As he got to know them, his respect for them grew. Gradually his anger faded and he developed a sort of ministry. I just watched and listened and appreciated.
My favorite of all his stories concerned a visit to a young woman who had a tragic family history: breast cancer had claimed the lives of her mother, her sister and her cousin. Another sister was in chemotherapy. this last event had driven her into action. At twenty-one she took one of the only options open at that time, she had both her breasts removed surgically.
He visited her on a hot midsummer day, wearing shorts, his artifical leg in full view. Deeply depressed, she lay in bed with her eyes closed, refusing to look at him. He tried everything he knew to reach her, but without success. he said things to her that only another person with an altered body would dare to say. He made jokes, he got angry. She did not respond. All the while the radio was softly playing rock music. Frustrated, he finally stood, and in a last effort to get her attention, he unstrapped the harness of his artifical leg and let it drop to the floor with a loud thump. Statrtled, she opened her eyes and saw him for the first time. Encouraged, he began to hop around the room snapping his fingers in time to the music and laughing out loud. After a moment she burst out laughing too, "fella, ," she said, "If you can dance, maybe I can sing."
This young woman became his friend and began to visit people in the hospital
with him. She was in school and she encouraged him to return to school to study
psychology and dream of carrying his work further. Eventually she became his wife, a
very different sort of person from the models and cheerleaders he had dated in the past.
But long before this, we ended our sessions together. In our final meeting, we were
reviewing the way he had come, the sticking points and the turning points. I opened his chart and found the picture of the broken vase that he had drawn two years before.
Unfolding it, I asked him if he remembered the drawing he had made of his body. He
took it in his hands and looked at it for some time. "You know, " he said, "it's really not finished." Surprised, I extended my basket of crayons towards him. Taking a yellow crayon, he began to drawn lines radiating from the crack in the vase to the very edges of the paper. Thick yellow lines. I watched, puzzled. He was smiling. Finally, he put his finger on the crack, looked at me and said, softly, "This is where the light comes through"

I doubt that this young man, many years ago, before the craze that kabbalah has become, had heard of the doctrine of the shattered vessel. But one of the most powerfully affecting ideas of the mystics was precisely this that brokenness is not only a flaw: it is also a potential. And that even, sometimes, brokenness is becasue of something so powerful and holy that it has to escape, to be let into the world of the actual from the world of the potential.
The cosmology of the kabbalists is one of complexity and strangeness: God must pull back to make room for imperfection, because perfection is lonely; God's holiness is so powerful that it shatters the vessels that are themselves imperfect, leaving pieces of holiness scattered around the universe: an act of weakness leading to great beauty, like a shower of sparks from a campfire, and we, human beings are also vessels of imperfection and beauty, full of holiness, and whose brokenness can be made into a gift to God.

Source?Vayikra Rabbah 7:2
Midrash Raba tells us: R. Alexandri said: If an ordinary person makes use of broken vessels, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy One, blessed be God, are precisely broken ones. God loves broken vessels,. "And God's favorite vessel? The human heart. God is most alive in us, not when we are full and satisfied, but when we are empty, cracked open, when we are brokenhearted.
Moses was our most brilliant leader because he knew that our hearts must be broken again and again throughout our lives, in order for the God of Life to reach us.

The stories the rabbis tell come to teach us that when we examine our flaws, when we come to understand them, they can become a source of strength and beauty.
There is an old Jewish folktale about a king who owned a valuable ruby, one of the rarest and most perfect in the world. One day the diamond fell and a deep scratch marred its face. The king summoned the best gem experts in the land to correct the blemish, but they all agreed they could not remove the scratch without cutting away a good part of the surface, thus reducing the weight and value of the ruby.

Finally one expert appeared and assured him that he could fix the ruby without reducing its value. His confidence was convincing and the king gave the ruby to the man. In a few days, the artisan returned the ruby to the king, who was amazed to find that the ugly scratch was gone, and in its place a beautiful rose was etched. The former scratch had become the stem of an exquisite flower.

When we talk about brokenness, we aren't talking about sins, rather, we are talking about the things which draw us toward sin -our Yetzer Hara, our inclination towards evil. But the rabbis understood, too, that the yetzer hara isn't really itself evil. It is also, according to them, the urge to procreate, to start a business, to build a house, all of which are good things. But ultimately at its core, these things are driven by one force: desire. Desire is not bad, but it is a kind of brokenness. Desire is longing, it comes from a feeling of emptiness. And at its heart, it is also the opportunity to invite God in.
In the book of Genesis, there are two creation stories. In the first, the first human being is not male or female but a creature of two sexes, which God then separates into two creatures, which forever now long for one another. But why did God do this? Perhaps one answer is that the adam, the earth creature, was too perfect. Although the Torah suggests that the adam was lonely, and looked among all the other creatures for a match, and was unable to find one, it seems to me that God created the Adam as a partner for Godself, a friend, as it were, but then the adam was too self-contained. The Adam wasn't a good match for God because in itself it was complete like God. So how was God to have a partner who would turn to God? God realized that something would have to be taken away from the adam, some piece would have to be missing, so that the adam would go searching, would develop curiousity and love and longing. In that longing for another human being also resides the longing for God. All brokenneess is a reflection of that original brokenness.

But we seek to cover up our essential brokenness in all kinds of things: possessions, power, money, sex: desire is not a bad thing - brokenness is a necessity for connecting to God, but only when we are able to face it. If we want to connect to God, if we want to be a vesssel for light, its not enough to simply be broken, we need to act to channel where the light goes. If you just let the brokenness be, unexamined and undirected, the light goes out, we become bitter, or selfish. What we want is a conduit, not a shattered vessel. Brokeness can be turned to holiness by making a stem of a rose from a scratch, not in leaving the scratch as it is.

The midrash compares the Torah to water: In the midrash on Song of Songs, the rabbis
give many many examples of places where the Torah is compared to water. I want to
mention just a very few:

îä äîéí îùéáéï äðôù ùðà' )ùåôèéí èæ( åéá÷ò àìäéí àú äîëúù àùø áìçé
åâå' ëê úåøä ùðà' )úäìéí éè( úåøú ä' úîéîä îùéáú ðôù
Just as water restores the soul, as it says, But God cleaved the hollow place which was in Lehi and there came water thereout; and when he had drunk... he revived (Judg. XV, 19), so does the Torah [restore the soul], as it says, The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul (Ps. XIX, 8).

åîä îéí éåøãéï èéôéï èéôéï åðòùéú ðçìéí ðçìéí ëê úåøä àãí ìîã á' äìëåú
äéåí åá' ìîçø òã ùðòùä ëðçì ðåáò îä îéí àí àéï àãí öîà àéðä òøáä áâåôå
ëê úåøä àí àéï àãí òéó áä àéðä òøáä áâåôå
Just as rain water comes down in drops and forms rivers, so with the Torah; a person learns two halachahs to-day and two to-morrow, until he becormes like a flowing stream. Just as water has no taste unless one is thirsty, so the Torah has no taste unless one labours at it.

This midrash teaches us a powerful lesson. It begins by quoting,
åÇéÌÄáÀ÷Çò àÁìÉäÄéí àÆúÎäÇîÌÇëÀúÌÅùÑ àÂùÑÆøÎáÌÇìÌÆçÄé åÇéÌÅöÀàåÌ îÄîÌÆðÌåÌ îÇéÄí åÇéÌÅùÑÀúÌÀ åÇúÌÈùÑÈá øåÌçåÉ
But God split a hollow place that was in Lehi, and water came out; and when he drank, his soul was returned to him and he revived (Judges 15:19) it is from the breaking of the stone that water comes in this midrash. We are being asked to imagine what it is in the world that makes us open to Torah: and the answer is "the place where God breaks us."
Our souls are returned to us from the place where they were broken.The imagination of the midrash is giving us a vision which draws for us a picture of Torah as water that heals, the flow of water literally vayechi - makes us live, but that water cannot flow until we allow ourselves to be split open.
But how are we to open ourselves to that possibility? The reverse is true as well: while we certainly can't live without that water of Torah, the midrash continues, we also cannot just leak! thus the rest of the midrash comes to teach us that we have to work at making ourselves the kind of person from whom water can flow once we are broken, and that means that we have to already have a place for God to slip in.. The midrash says, "Just as rain water comes down in drops and forms rivers, so with the Torah; a man learns two halachahs to-day and two to-morrow, until he becormes like a flowing stream. Just as water has no taste unless one is thirsty, so the Torah has no taste unless one labours at it."
If Torah is life giving water, and it cannot come forth from us unless we are broken, there is still more than one kind of brokenness. This is how Russians drink tea (I vaguely remember seeing this operation in my grandmother's house as a little girl). You pour hot tea into a glass over a spoon. You can't pour the tea without the spoon, because without the spoon, the hot liquid was too much for the glass, and it would shatter. We need the spoon, a guide, something to keep the temperature from being too hot. The beginning of the universe was an act of beauty in its shattering, and the sparks that were freed are ours to collect, but that shattering was almost too much for the universe. That kind of shattering destroys rather than heals, which is why God needs Jews to collect the sparks through our mitzvot and return them to God. Our former sports stars' drawing of the vase didn't after all, have a shattered vase, but a cracked vase - it still held together enough that it's contents didn't go
flying out in all directions. The man himself did, in the end, hold together; he was not completely shattered.
If our brokenness is an unwaware kind of brokenness, then it isn't the kind of crack that allows Torah to flow in, rather it's a shattering akin to pouring hot tea into a glass without a spoon. Torah is our guide, our spoon, it lets the hot liquid come into the glass drop by drop, so that the vessel holds and is not destroyed. The Torah builds us "two halachas today, and two tomorrow - we have to chip slowly away at ourselves, to find a way to let the Torah in so that the water can flow out.

"Teshuva, tefila and tzedakah" says our liturgy during these days of awe, "maavirin et roa hagezeira ..."
but that doesn't mean repentance, prayer and charity, avert the evil decree, but rather something more specific. Teshuva means turn: not simply to return ourselves, but to turn our viewpoint. In social work (I know this because I'm married to a social worker) this is called "reframing". The situation you're in looks terrible, but what can you get out of it? Your flaw looks insurmountable, but how can you make it a strength?
Tefila, is not just the English "prayer" but from the word to examine oneself. Turning, reframing can't happen without some self knowledge. Our sports star couldn't see that there was light to be brought into the world through his crack until he had stopped thinking of only himself. He had to begin thinking of himself in an entirely new way, and it didn't happen by accident,. It could have gone either way - he might have turned into a bitter, lonely old man, forever dwelling on what he had had and what had been stolen from him. Instead, he can now see that while it would be wrong to say his disease was a blessing, he can say that it made him a better person, one more aware of others, and a person who acts in the world for God's ends, and not just his own.
And tzedakah. Of course this does mean charity in the sense of money as well. Part of Jewish obligation is helping those without by sharing with them what we have. The
tzedakah fair we have every year (coming up Nov 6th!) is an opportunity for everyone in the community to show how generous the people at Adas are in that way - by walking and raising money for Anne Frank house we are able to help in profound ways the people in the community. But that's not all of what tzedakah is: in Latin, Charity is from caritas, which is a gesture of affection. Tzedakah, however, is an obligation to do justly. We don't do to make ourselves feel good, but because it is rquired by God. Because it is the just thing to do.It's not enough to reframe for oneself and come to think about oneself. One has to turn one's actions outward, and not just with giving money, but by making the world a place in which God shines forth from every crack. It took turning our sports star's anger towards the benefit of others, and helping them with their anger that his flaw became a rose, that his crack became a place for light to shine forth. Notice the gem in our story did not cease to have a scratch. The scratch is always there, but wisdom turned the scratch into a rose. It took work, action to make something new of that scratch.

At this time of year, when we need to examine our selves: do cheshbon hanefesh - take an account of our flaws and take responsibility for them, we are at the moment of redemption. Human beings are by nature broken creatures. All of us are flawed, and all of us have the capacity to turn those flaws into a conduit for holiness. The task of Yom Kippur, and really of every day of our lives, is to shuv- turn, or "reframe" your flaws, your faults, so they become virtues. If you tend toward competitiveness, become competitive about giving more tzedaka; if you tend toward short-temperedness, try to direct it as righteous indignation at things that are wrong in the world. Each of these flaws is a facet of our longing for God. When our former sports star found a way to make his anger at his cancer become instead anger at how ill people were treated, and then finally, a task that he took on to
change how people who had gone through trauma were treated, that brokeness became a
place for the light in him to shine forth, for the water to flow from him, and revive those who drank. On Yom Kippur we stand before God, exposed, intimate and naked. God grants us this moment to see that our individual brokenness is at its heart, all one - it is a piece of the longing God instilled within us for Godself. The vessels used by God are broken ones. For it is only the broken who can make themselves whole.

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