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Yom Kippur 2021/5782

09/16/2021 09:20:56 AM


Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe

Good yontiff.

Two years ago, before the pandemic, but following a year of upheaval and disorientation, which now seems distant and remote, my colleague, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, addressed her congregation on Yom Kippur with these words:

“If we just sat here, all of us, and cried together today, that might be the most eloquent response to the year we’ve just lived through.”

I have to say that her words apply to this past year, as well.

She continues on saying “We are a people who both value tears and are fluent in them… Judaism teaches that tears are what open the gates of heaven. When we cry God remembers us and pays attention to our world… But also when we cry we remember who we are, because when we cry we remember what we care about.”

“… when we cry we remember who we are, because when we cry we remember what we care about.”

We have done an awful lot of crying over the last 18 months, and if we have not always had actual tears flow, we have certainly cried out over and again, because the more we experience this time of challenge, the more we remember who we are, and the more remember what we care about.

We cry because we are broken, and because our world is broken.

We cry because deep down, we wonder if our world will ever be quite the same as it was.

We cry because we know deep down that it cannot be quite the same as it was.

We cry because it just might be the most eloquent response to the time we have lived through and are continuing to live through.

We cry because until we cry, until we grieve and mourn, we cannot move forward.

We are broken, and our world is broken, but brokenness does not have to be a permanent state, unless we choose for it to be so.

And it can, with intention and effort, become not only repaired, but redeemed.

Perhaps you are familiar with the Japanese practice of kintsugi or kintsukuroi.  According to art historians, it came about when a 15th-century shogun broke his favorite tea bowl, and sent it to China for repairs.  He was terribly disappointed when it came back stapled together, with unsightly metal pins.  But local craftsmen came up with a solution: they filled the crack with a golden lacquer, which made the bowl unique, even more beautiful, and even more valuable.  The once broken vessel returned to its place as the shogun’s favorite and inspired a whole new art form.

The philosophy underlying kintsukuroi was already current in 16th century Japan.  Simple items marked by time and process were favored over luxury and opulence.  Irregularity, rough surfaces, asymmetry, and defects were embraced as signs of character and came to be valued more than that which was unblemished and otherwise, apparently, perfect.  It reflected a philosophy that speaks to us at this very moment in time: the need to accept that perfection is not the same as wholeness,  the need to accept change, to engage with reality and with whatever it is we have available to us to make the repairs that are necessary.

But we can do more than repair the vessel that is our world, and the vessels that are ourselves.  We can bring our own form of kintsugi, transforming those repaired vessels so that they are  even more precious than the original.

As you might expect, our tradition speaks to exactly this.

There is the often told story of the king who had a large, nearly flawless emerald that gave him great pleasure, so much so that he would regularly have it brought to him so that he could hold it in his hands and admire it.  One day, however, he caught the gem with the ring he was wearing, which housed a sapphire, harder than his beloved emerald, on the side of the stone, leaving a large scratch.  He was horrified, and as upset about its now diminished beauty as its now diminished value.  A call was put out to the artisans of the land, and one came forward who assured the king that he could not merely restore it to its former beauty and value, but improve upon both.

The stone was entrusted to the artisan under heavy guard, who brought it back a few days later.  The king was amazed.  The artisan had etched the image of a beautiful flower into the side of the emerald, using the original scratch as its stem.  The emerald was now indeed both more beautiful and more valuable than before.

But what we are experiencing is more than a scratch.  And what is in need of repair is not a luxury item like an emerald, but our very souls and our very world. 

And thankfully, our tradition has what to teach us to guide us through this time.

We are all familiar with the term Tikkun Olam, repair of the world, but perhaps not its foundation.

We use the term mostly to speak of social action and social justice, but its roots are more complex.

The term has been around for many centuries, but started to find its way into mainstream Judaism through those who embraced Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition.  It was articulated by the 16th-century Jewish mystic and Kabbalistic teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari, who posited a creation myth which obligated us to assume partnership with God to repair the world.

According to Luria, at the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe.  God and the universe were one.  When God decided to bring the world into being, to make room for creation, God contracted God’s self, and said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3).  Ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.  God sent those vessels forth, each carrying a portion of God’s light.  But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful, divine light, and so, broke open, scattering holy sparks everywhere. Those sparks cannot be seen by human eyes. But they can be discovered and gathered up.

According to the Ari, with every mitzvah we fulfill, we separate what is holy from what is profane and ordinary, and release those sparks, and the light within.

 It is, the Ari taught, for that reason we were created:  to seek out and gather those hidden, holy sparks, wherever they are hidden. 

And with every mitzvah we fulfill, we gather more of those holy sparks, and bring our world closer to redemption.

Not only does that offer an explanation for why we are here, but it provides a profound truth about the creation of the world, one that emerges from the Big Bang theory as much as it does from this myth about the world’s creation:

The world itself came into being through brokenness.

Because, in fact, nothing new can come into being without brokenness.

And the very purpose of human beings from the beginning of our existence has been to embrace that brokenness and to redeem it by creating something new that is more beautiful and more precious…and so, more whole.

Tikkun olam means to do with the world that which will not simply repair the brokenness, but improve upon it.

Not altogether unlike the Japanese practice of kintsugi.

Redemption is not merely restoring function.  Redemption is achieving what is possible, bringing to potential, and making ourselves and our world even more beautiful by mending what is broken so that it is more beautiful than what it was even before brokenness.

And that is the opportunity we have been given, through our brokenness, collectively and individually.

And yes, there is even more in our tradition that speaks to brokenness and redemption.

Here I want to acknowledge my colleague, Rabbi Sarah Noyovitz, for pointing me to this particular text:

Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov, a 19th century Hasidic scholar known as The B’nei Yissachar, points to a text from the Haftarah for this past Shabbat, Shabbat Shuva, as the foundation of how we move from brokenness to greater wholeness.  

He quotes a passage from the text, from the book of Hosea (14:8), which says “They shall bring life to grain and they shall blossom like the vine.”  Now, by itself, that text is not particularly instructive or, I daresay, meaningful.  But the teaching of The B’nei Yissachar is profoundly meaningful for our time.

Some context is necessary here:

In Jewish tradition, there are several different blessings for different kinds of foods.  And there is, in fact, a hierarchy of blessings.  We are perhaps most familiar with motzi, the blessing over bread.  That is the one we recite most often, as bread is the threshold for what constitutes a meal, and by reciting motzi, we have, effectively, recited a blessing over the entire meal, so whatever else we eat is covered by motzi, and does not require any further blessing. Bread, is, if you will, at the top of the food chain – or at least the chain of blessings over food.  

When we eat other specific foods, there are different blessings that are recited, and the hierarchy continues.  When eating an apple, we say “borei p’ri ha’etz,” “creator of the fruit of the tree.”  But when eating applesauce, or drinking apple juice, which have been processed, we offer what is considered a somewhat lesser blessing, “shehakol nih’yeh bidvaro,” “by whose word everything came to be.”  We say that blessing over just about anything else that is not consumed in its original form, including animal products, and it is the lowest level of the six different kinds of blessings over food.

But there are two exceptions to this rule, the ones mentioned in the Hosea verse: grain and vine. “They shall bring life to grain and they shall blossom like the vine.”  In fact, when eating plain grapes even, though they are clearly the fruit of the vine, the blessing one recites is “borei p’ri ha’etz,” “creator of the fruit of the tree!”  Even though other processed foods receive the lowest blessing on the ladder, bread and wine not only receive their own unique blessings, but are elevated above all of the others!

Wine and grape juice, are of course, symbolic of holiness in Jewish life.  Like bread, they only attain that state and so that status when they are transformed by human beings.  But how is that different from applesauce or apple juice?

Perhaps the most common interpretation is that both bread and wine signify the partnership between humans and God.  While the words of motzi may say that God “bring forth bread from the earth,” we know that God only brings forth grain from the earth.  We have to make it into bread.  And we differentiate between grapes, which are only potentially the symbol of holiness and grape juice or wine, which only become the symbol of holiness when they have been set aside for a higher purpose. Bread can only come into being though the partnership between humans and God. Grain is, by itself, not nearly as palatable as it is once transformed into bread by human beings,.  When we say motzi, the common wisdom goes, we are reciting a blessing not only over the bread itself, but over human participation in our world and our divine partnership.

But the B’nei Yissachar teaches us something radically different: that bread and wine are grain and vine not merely processed, but transformed into something higher, mashtanin lam’alyuta. 

I would point out, however, that in order to become bread and wine, grain and grapes have to be broken before they can go through their remarkable transformation.

The highest level blessing, then, is offered over bread, which has not merely gone through a process, but has been transformed. 

We, too, become the highest blessings we can become ourselves when we have not merely gone through a process, but have been transformed.

And that transformation starts with brokenness.

I know that right now many of us feel as if we have been broken beyond what we have ever known before.

And what that means is that we now have the potential to become, at the very least, more beautiful vessels than we were before we were as broken, and perhaps even greater blessings than we might ever have imagined.

It all depends on what we do with our brokenness.

If our brokenness inspires us to be more attuned to and aware of the brokenness in others, inspiring greater sensitivity, thoughtfulness, caring, and tenderness, our brokenness will have been redeemed.

If our brokenness inspires us to remember what it is like not to be able to travel freely and to gather freely, so that we make an extra effort, whatever it takes, to be present for the funerals, the shivas, the weddings, the B’nai Mitzvah, the baby namings that before, we might have thought twice about, our brokenness will have been redeemed.

If our brokenness inspires us to become more engaged in our Temple Isaiah community and in Jewish life because we know what it means to be kept from doing so, our brokenness will have been redeemed.

If our brokenness inspires in us even a measure of mindfulness of what it means to have our health, and to appreciate the loved ones in our lives, our brokenness will have been redeemed.

If our brokenness leads us to greater awareness of the inequalities of our world, and inspires us to openness to combine our capacity and our efforts with others who are similarly broken, and allow ourselves to be forged in the fire of the challenges that we will surely have to face, we will, like grain that has not merely been processed, but transformed into bread, our brokenness will have been redeemed, and we will become blessings ourselves.

And no matter how redeemed, we will always carry our brokenness with us. 

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai carrying the tablets of the commandments, and saw the Israelites worshiping the Golden calf, he smashed the tablets to the ground.  Our rabbis asked, what happened to those broken shards? The Israelites, they told us, bent to the ground, and searched for each broken piece. They picked them all up, each and every one, and put them into the ark.  Then, they tell us, on Yom Kippur, that very first day of Atonement, Moses came down with the second set of tablets. That whole set of tablets was also placed in the ark. The Israelites carried them both--the broken and the whole, together.

As do we.  As we always will.  Because we are not whole without our broken pieces.

Contemporary Jewish composer, Dan Nichols, who was our artist in residence for Shabbat Shira a few years ago, wrote these words:

“I thank you for my life, body and soul. Help me realize I’m beautiful and whole. I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too. I will live each day, as a gift I give to you.”

May it be, on this day, our prayer.

And if you are so inclined, I invite you to say,


Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783