Getting to Know Our Broken Heart
This talk, delivered at Temple Beth in Eugene, Oregon in September 2013
was inspired by a sermon by Rabbi Lavey Derby
Once upon a time, there was a king who built an intricate palace. The palace had seven circular inner paths. Each path led in circular fashion to yet another path farther and farther into the center of the palace until one came to a tiny innermost chamber. At the front of the palace there was a gate, and at the end of each inner path, there was a door to the next inner path, and each doorway was narrower and smaller than the one before so that the door to the innermost chamber was so narrow and small that a person could just barely squeeze through and enter.
At the front of the palace the king placed a huge boulder. He called his son to meet him outside the palace. He showed his son the boulder and he asked his son to bring the boulder into the innermost room of the palace. The king’s son wanted to please his father so he readily agreed. But when the son tried to move the boulder, he realized that it was too large and too heavy to pick up, so he began to roll the boulder through the palace gate across the courtyard and toward the door to the first inner path.
As the doorways to each inner path became smaller and smaller, the king’s son had more and more difficulty maneuvering the boulder into the next room, until finally it became impossible to get the boulder through the next door. The son went to his father in tears and confessed that he had failed. The boulder was just too large. So the king gave his son a sledgehammer and said, “here, try this.” The king’s son used the sledgehammer to break the boulder into pieces, and he carried each piece through the remaining paths into the innermost chamber as his father had requested.
This boulder is our heart.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, the father of modern Chassidism taught, רחמנא ליבא בעי Rachmana Liba Ba’ei. It is our hearts that God desires of us.” Not our puffed up, boasting, ego filled hearts. Not the heart filled with our acquisitions and great accomplishments. Not the acquiring heart that always wants a bigger portion. Not even the self-effacing heart that says, “poor me.” It’s not any of these hearts that God desires. Rather, it is the heart battered and in pieces. It is the broken heart that God desires.
The Chassidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendyl of Kotzk, said that there is nothing more whole than a broken heart. We are broken in so many ways by life: our aging bodies that abandon us; dread disease that threatens us; the loss of a job; watching loved ones suffer; and too often watching loved ones die; experiencing the death of a relationship; an endless loneliness; our children who struggle or lose their way while we watch helplessly, our children who cannot be who we want them to be; disappointment upon disappointment upon disappointment.
And as if the events of life do not batter us enough, there is the extra additional suffering that we create for ourselves: the inescapable feeling that we will never measure up, that we are not good enough and not worthy enough. And on top of all that, there is poverty, hunger, hatred and violence that pervade our communities and our world and assault us in the news every day. We don’t need a sledgehammer to break our hearts; we are already broken in so many ways.
The Talmud (Brachot 5a) records an exploration into the spiritual meaning of suffering: "Raba, and some say Rabbi Hisda, taught that if people see that painful suffering afflicts them, let them examine their conduct... If they examine their conduct and they find nothing [objectionable], then let them attribute their suffering to the neglect of the study of Torah... And if they find that they did not neglect to study Torah, then their suffering is evidently the chastising of love, as it is said in the Book of Proverbs, "It is the one whom God loves who God rebukes. (Proverbs 3:12)"
This wisdom teaching urges us to examine our conduct. This process of examination is called חֶשְׁבּוֹן הַנֶפֶשׁ cheshbon hanefesh – taking a moral inventory of our behavior. חֶשְׁבּוֹן הַנֶפֶשׁ Cheshbon hanefesh is the essential practice of the ten days of awe beginning on Rosh Hashanah and continuing through the end of Yom Kippur. As we engage in חֶשְׁבּוֹן הַנֶפֶשׁ chesbon hanefesh, taking a moral inventory of our behavior, we might begin to see that misdeeds carry within them the punishment from which we suffer.
There was once a teenager who lied incessantly. She lied to her teachers and her parents about her schoolwork and her homework. She lied to her friends about her talents and capacities. Her parents sent her to therapy to try to get her some help and it was in the process of therapy that she began to realize that she was lying to herself. She could not accept her own sense of smallness so she created a fictional life with her lies. Ultimately she began to acknowledge that the lying itself was painful, more painful than her parents’ punishments, because she lived in constant fear of being found out and her stomach was tied up in the knots of internal conflict and confusion.
Our sages tell us, עֲבֵירָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵירָה aveira gorrerret aveira, sin begets sin, and because of this, the punishment for sin is the sin itself. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a 20th century kabbalist and the first chief rabbi of modern Israel, explained it like this: “Every sin oppresses the heart… the basis of the anguish experienced is not merely the result of sin itself. Rather, it is due to the basic nature of sin and the nature of the life process that has become disoriented from the order of existence.” In its essence, a sin is an act of terrible alienation from oneself and from the harmony of all existence, and that is the suffering we feel at our own wrong doing.
The Talmud’s second suggestion that a lack of Torah study can cause suffering points us to a wise insight into the nature of how we make choices. My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi says that the mind is like tofu. Tofu by itself has no taste. It takes on the taste of whatever we use as a marinade. Let tofu sit in sweet marinade and it tastes sweet. Marinate it in bitter, and it tastes bitter. And the mind is just like that. If we fill our minds with bitterness, we will experience the Torah of our life as bitter and we may even become cynical. If we fill our minds with sweetness, we will experience the Torah of our life as sweet and we may even become optimistic.
The wisdom teaching from the Talmud also recognizes a third form of pain and suffering: the pain for which there is no reason; the pain that is not a punishment, nor a consequence of our behavior. It is simply the pain of being human. The Talmud calls this יְסוּרִין שֶׁל אָהֲבָה yesurin shel ahava, the suffering of love. When we come to know our suffering with love, it is then that our suffering offers the greatest possible redemption. I have a young friend named Yishai who suffers from cerebral palsy. Yishai wears braces on his legs. He walks with a walker. He speaks with difficulty and he’s brilliant. When Yishai became bar mitzvah, a distinguished colleague in his congregation did a question and answer session with him for his bar mitzvah speech. Yishai couldn’t read quickly enough to be able to read a speech even though he could have written a brilliant one, so instead, the distinguished scholar quizzed Yishai about his Torah portion and the congregation listened in wrapped silence.
When Yishai was seventeen his sister became bat mitzvah. Yishai was still using a walker. He still couldn’t read a book or a speech, but he was taking college courses, listening to his textbooks on tapes recorded for the blind. And his professors loved him and he earned good grades. On the Friday evening before his sister’s bat mitzvah, we had a Friday evening service and Shabbat dinner for family and friends. We were singing the hymns to welcome Shabbat and the great Hazzan Jack Kessler was leading a hymn when suddenly, Yishai stopped us and said, “wait a minute! We’re supposed to be thanking God! Let’s crank it up!” Hazzan Jack cranked it up and Yishai beat out the rhythm on the handles of his walker at seventeen. His face was full of love for God who gave him a body that doesn’t work right.
Yishai taught me the difference between “hope” and “faith.” Yishai has no hope that his body will suddenly work like other bodies do. But he has faith in his capacity to be the best he can be. And if Yishai can thank God for what God has given him, then I can certainly thank God for what God has given me.
The sages tell us to be mevarekh al hara’ah—to bless the experience of what seems to be bad, to bless the experience of suffering. And what do we say when we bless the experience of suffering? We each have our own way of doing this and I want to share one thing that I do, which is to thank God for the opportunity to feel my connection with God more strongly when things go wrong than when things go right.
I want to conclude with the story of Moses hitting the rock, instead of speaking to it, because he was impatient to get water for the hundreds of thousands of Israelites wandering in the wilderness. God told Moses to speak to the rock instead of hitting it. How might it sound if we were to speak to the rock in our own heart? My friend and teacher Rabbi Lavey Derby suggests that we might speak to the rock in our heart like this. We might say, “I want to know you, my heart. I want to know your truth. I accept you, my heart. I accept your beauty, I accept your joy, I accept your pain, I accept your suffering, I accept your goodness, I accept your purity and I accept your faults and your failures. I embrace you, my heart, and I will embrace myself as simply and beautifully human.”
If we can speak to our hearts so gently, might our hearts become tender and vulnerable? If we can forgive ourselves for the sin of being human, might our hearts melt at the sound of our own words? If we can be vulnerable and humble, and hold our hearts in our hands, perhaps we can offer ourselves once again, just as we are, to the God who waits for us lovingly, patiently, to embrace us and to heal us from the inside out.
L’shanah tovah tikateyvu v’tichateymu. May each of us be inscribed and sealed for a very good year. Shanah tovah. (Happy New Year.)