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  • Rabbi Pam

The Broken and the Whole

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

The Broken and the Whole

Erev Yom Kippur 5777 • 2016

By Rabbi Pamela Frydman

(This talk is also linked to the website of Congregation P'nai Tikvah.)

There was a young man who drove an old jalopy and one day he ran out of gas. The weather was cool and so he walked to the nearest gas station, which was about a quarter of a mile away. He lugged a heavy gas can back to his car and as he approached, he noticed that there was another old jalopy right up ahead and both cars looked exactly alike. He put down the gas can and took out his keys to unlock the car, because he wanted to be sure he knew which car was his. But just then his cell phone rang. He tucked his keys back in his pocket and answered the phone. When he finished the call, he tucked away his phone, flipped open the gas door, unscrewed the gas cap and poured the gas into the tank. Then he pulled out his keys and went to unlock the trunk so he could put away the gas can. But his key did not work and that is when he realized that he had just donated two gallons of gas to a complete stranger.[1]

The man walked over to the other car, tried the key, and it worked like a charm. Then he walked back to the gas station to refill the gas can. The gas station attendant chided the man, saying, “you know, when you run out of gas, you can just use the little bit of gas in the can to get your car going again, and then you can drive over here and fill up instead of walking back and forth. The young man was too embarrassed to explain his predicament, so he just smiled and shook his head.

I am interested in the phenomenon of forgetfulness, because sometimes I am forgetful. I am also interested in forgetfulness, because forgetfulness has two sides. Forgetting can lead us to perform a mitzvah like when the young man accidentally donated two gallons of gas to a stranger. And forgetting can also cause great harm such as when someone causes a serious accident by forgetting to take safety precautions.

The sages of the Talmud were also interested in forgetfulness. In the Talmudic Tractate on Blessings, it says that we should be careful to respect our elders who have forgotten their knowledge, because the shattered stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments were kept in the ark in ancient times together with the second set of whole tablets.[2]

As we know, it says in the Torah that the Israelites received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.[3] The Israelites were gathered at the foot of the mountain and they heard the commandments recited by the booming voice that we call G-o-d.

That booming voice frightened the Israelites, so they said to Moses, “from now on, you go talk to G-o-d and then come back and tell us what G-o-d had to say, but please don’t let G-o-d talk to us directly, because it is just too intense and we feel like we’re going to die.”[4]

Moses went up to the top of Mount Sinai and stayed there for forty days. And it was during those forty days that G-d gave Moses the two stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments.[5] At the end of the forty days, just before Moses was about to come down the mountain, the Israelites contracted a serious case of forgetfulness. They forgot that Moses was going to come back, and they also forgot that G-o-d had just told them in the Ten commandments that they should not make idols.[6]

The Israelites were so lost in their forgetfulness that they turned to Moses’ brother Aaron, and they said to Aaron, “make us a god to lead us!”[7] Aaron took up a collection of gold rings. He placed the gold in the fire and fashioned a golden calf. The Israelites pointed to the calf and said, “this is your god, oh Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”[8] And they held a celebration and worshipped the golden calf.

Moses came down from Mount Sinai, and when he saw the golden calf, he dropped the stone tablets and they shattered. A few weeks later, G-o-d said to Moses, “I made the first set of tablets, now you, Moses, you make the second set. Bring your stone tablets up on the mountain, spend another forty days with me, and I, G-o-d, will write the commandments on the second set of stone tablets.[9]

Now some of us may consider this story to be history, while others may consider it to be myth. But it doesn’t really matter, because regardless of whether we view the story as history or as myth, either way, the first set of shattered tablets and the second set of whole tablets are deeply relevant to our lives because each of us is broken and whole, whole and broken.

We never get to have everything we want. Life never works out the way we want it to. And as if that were not enough, no matter how much good we do, we are often rewarded with cynicism, criticism, sarcasm, illness, and worse. And as if that were not enough, when we look at the world around us, we see violence, corruption, prejudice, starvation, and other forms of misery.

We are the broken tablets and we live in a broken world. Just as the sages placed the first set of broken tablets in the ark, together with the second set of whole tablets, so we must make room for our own brokenness and our own wholeness in the holy of holies of our own lives.

According to the sages, Moses went up on Mount Sinai for the second time on Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. And he came down from Mount Sinai forty days later, on Yom Kippur.[10] So today is the anniversary of God giving the Israelites a second chance.

The first set of broken tablets and the second set of whole tablets are metaphors for the capacities we need to engage in the risky and vulnerable process of teshuvah. The process of turning to one another to say, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I let you down. I’m sorry I didn’t come through for you. I’m sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry for so many things.”

It takes great courage to apologize to those whom we have hurt, and it takes even greater courage to forgive those who apologize to us. But the greatest amount of courage is needed for us to forgive ourselves and to believe in ourselves.

The process of teshuvah – repentance – in which we engage on Yom Kippur is not a free ride. Even though we apologize and forgive and try to do better, sometimes there are still lingering consequences for our previous actions and those consequences continue even after we forgive and are forgiven.

The ancient sages had the wisdom to place the shattered tablets in the holy ark, but the generation who worshipped the golden calf did not enter the Promised Land, and instead, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years and they died in the wilderness; and it was their children and grandchildren who actually entered the land of promise.

May we each be like Moses with a blank slate in our hands, ready for God to write the holy teachings that we need for this new year. May we each have the courage to believe that we can also have a second chance, or a third or fourth chance, or however many chances we need, to right the wrongs in our own lives, and to get back to the holy work of becoming who we are, and who we are meant to be.

May we have the courage to face our own foibles and mistakes. And may we also have the courage to face the consequences of our foibles and mistakes. May we have the courage to forgive ourselves even when life continues to exact from us an uncomfortable consequence for our mistakes.

May this be a year in which we sow in tears and reap in joy. May this be a season when we forget our pettiness and remember those who need our help. May this be a time when we remember what is truly important and forget our grudges and hard feelings.

Zochreynu l’chayyim, Melech Hafetz Bachayyim, v’chat’veynu b’seyfer hachayyim. Remember us for life, oh G-o-d of life. Write us in the book of life. May our fate and the fate of all our loved ones be sealed for a sweet, healthy, happy, prosperous, and fulfilling new year. May this be the year when the world moves closer to peace, prosperity, and fulfillment for everyone in our community, our nation and our world.

Keyn yehi ratzon. So may it be.

[1] I learned this story from Rabbi Aubrey Glazer.

[2] Brachot 8b.

[3] Exodus, chapters 19 and 20.

[4] Exodus 20:15-16.

[5] Exodus 24:12-18.

[6] Exodus 20:3-4.

[7] Exodus 32:1.

[8] Exodus 32:2-4.

[9] Exodus 34:1, Deuteronomy 10:2.

[10] Rabbi George Gittleman also teaches in the name of Rabbi Arthur Green that G-o-d wrote the Ten Commandments on the second set of tablets on Rosh HaShannah. Green, Arthur. Seek My Face, A Jewish Mystical Theology. Jewish Lights, 2003.


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