Two Sets of Tablets
The story of this week’s portion (Ki Sisa) goes like this: After the Jews created a Golden Calf, Moses smashed the stone tablets created by G-d, engraved with the Ten Commandments. Moses and G-d then "debated" the appropriate response to this transgression and it was decided that if the people would truly repent, G-d would give them a second chance. Moses hewed a second set of stone tablets; G-d engraved them also with the Ten Commandments, and Moses gave them to the Jewish people.
All’s well that ends well? Or is there perhaps more to the story?
Some of the profoundest messages of the Bible are conveyed by omission. In this episode too, the Bible does not address the obvious question: What happened to the first set of broken tablets that Moses smashed? Did they remain strewn on the ground, somewhere near Mt. Sinai? Did individual Jews seize them for their personal collections to be sold one day on e-Bay?
The Sages in the Talmud give us the answer: "The whole tablets and the broken tablets nestled inside the Ark of the Covenant (1)." The Jews, in other words, proceeded to gather together the broken fragments of the first set of tablets and had them stored in the Ark, in the Tabernacle, together with the second whole tablets. Both sets of tablets were later taken into the Land of Israel and kept side by side in the Ark, situated in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem.
But why? Why would they place the broken tablets in the Holy of Holies? After all, these fragments were a constant reminder of the great moral failure of the Jewish people. Why not just disregard them, or at best deposit them in some safe isolated place?
The spiritual masters of Judaism understood that this episode captured a fundamental lesson in life. The broken tablets, they suggested, were placed in the Holiest chamber of the Temple to remind us that the broken moments and experiences of our lives also constitute part of our own "holy of holies." Failure is a gateway through which we must at times pass in order to access our deepest core. Wholesomeness is holy, but brokenness is sometimes holier yet.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a 19th century Chasidic master, taught that "there is nothing more whole than a broken heart." Brokenness is often the only way back to wholeness. At the moment when things seem to be falling apart, we may become open to new dimensions of our existence that are just waiting for our recognition. It is so hard for us to see this in the moment of pain, but when we look back upon our lives we can discover that when one door closes, another one opens.
We must only profess the courage to enter it.
Many of us invest time and energy running from our difficult experiences, from our broken fragments. It is challenging for us to acknowledge and sit with what truly hurts. We try to avoid pain by watching television, working hard, eating a lot, going to parties. But paradoxically, we can only access our real potential by embracing our broken tablets.
Or as a Jewish poet, Eliezer Cohen, once wrote:
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
Holes In Life
A story is told about an elderly Chinese woman who owned two large pots. Each hung on the end of a pole, which she carried every day on her shoulders to fill with water from the stream located at the end of the village. One of the pots was complete and always delivered a full portion of water; the other pot was cracked and arrived home each day only half full.
Of course, the complete pot was proud of its accomplishments. It felt really good about itself. The poor cracked pot, on the other hand, was ashamed of its own imperfections; it was miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.
After six years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, the humbled broken pot finally opened its heart to the woman at the stream. "I hate myself," the cracked pot cried, "I am so useless and valueless. What purpose does my existence have when each day I leak out half of my water? I am such a loser!"
The old woman smiled and said, "Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot's side? I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path. Every day while we walk back from the stream, you have the opportunity to water them.
"For six years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate our home. Without you being just the way you are, we would have never created this beauty together."
May we very soon reach the day when we will profess the clarity to see how the holiness of G-d permeates our fragmented tablets as well. On that day the world will be healed (2).
1) Bava Basra 14a.
2) This article is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, on the 20th of Av 5725, August 18th 1965, on the occasion of his father’s yartziet.