torah | Valuing our broken pieces allows us to become wholeby rabbi mychal copeland
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Chol HaMo’ed Pesach
Ezekiel 36:37-38, 37:1-14, 37:15-17
In his book “Everything is Illuminated,” Jonathan Safran Foer writes, “Jews have six senses: touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory.” For better or worse, we are a people who reminisce. We hold on to the bits and pieces of our past with tenacity, perhaps frightened that if we don’t remember, no one else will. At its core, the Passover holiday teaches us to hold on to our stories.
This week’s special Passover Torah portion brings back a painful memory before it switches focus to the festival of matzah and other holidays. We are reminded of the drama of the golden calf episode as God gives Moses instructions to “carve the tablets of stone like the first …” (Exodus 34:1). As if Moses could forget that, in his fury, he destroyed the first set, God adds the poignant words “ … which you shattered.” The word in Hebrew for what Moses did to those tablets is sh-v-r, the same root used when the shofar blasts a wailing, broken sound.
What happened to the remnants of the first set of commandments? The Talmud teaches that God also told Moses: “The first tablets that you broke … place them in the ark.” This teaches us that both the whole tablets and the broken tablets were placed in the ark. (Bava Batra 14b). Far from being forgotten, the pieces of brokenness rest alongside the wholeness of the rewritten version of the covenant.
What might those fragments represent? For Moses, perhaps they are a reminder of his potential to lash out in anger, or his intense disappointment in the people he had helped liberate. For the people who urged Aaron to create the calf, those shards could be a reminder of their shortsightedness, or their disorientation in the absence of their leader, Moses. For everyone, they are a reminder that despite our best efforts, we are weighed down by our shortcomings, painful memories, or disappointment in ourselves and others.
We carry around our broken pieces within us, some more than others. But Moses’ job in this episode is to begin the healing process by creating a new set of tablets. The brokenness will not be forgotten, but the fractured and the healed pieces are allowed, even mandated, to sit side by side in the ark. A few verses later, Moses carves the tablets and receives the law once more on Mount. Sinai.
Then the mood shifts and we are instructed to “observe the feast of matzah during the month you were set free from Egypt” (Exodus 34:18). The Exodus story, like the story of the writing and rewriting of the tablets, is another story of brokenness-to-wholeness that we retell every year. It begins with shackles and ends in liberation. The word “haggadah” itself is a “telling,” a remembering of our story. Like the shards of stone in the ark, we carry both brokenness and healing in ourselves all of the time.
There are four different names for this festival in the Torah. Why is the name Chag HaMatzot, the festival of matzah, used here? Perhaps Passover is the “festival of matzah” in this parashah because matzah is inherently broken, like the first set of tablets. Matzah crumbles as we eat it. It crumbles onto the floor. Somehow it reaches every corner of our homes in one short week, and we clean up the fragments of the broken story of slavery for months after we retell it.
What do we choose to remember of our own stories? What do we consciously block out? Our story of liberation is an instruction to us that our task is not to become so enveloped by memory that we can’t move forward. The Passover ritual leads us from fragmentation to liberation, teaching us to find strength in both aspects of our story.
As Jews, we constantly integrate brokenness with wholeness — by breaking a glass on our happiest day, by celebrating a new year while pleading for forgiveness for the shortcomings of the previous one and by spilling drops of wine to remember that the price of our liberation was that others’ lives were lost. We do not mix our emotions because we don’t know how to just “be happy.” We tell both stories in one breath to understand that they are intricately woven together throughout our histories and our lives. We only reach wholeness and joy by integrating the stories of brokenness into our stories of liberation.
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