Sunday, 24 February 2008

I don't like it when things get broken

I don’t like it when things get broken. I mean I don’t mind it when I can whisk away the fragments Into a bin with them. Moving on – no use crying over spilt milk and all that. I just don’t like broken bits and pieces hanging around, reminding me of my clumsiness, reminding me of a failure to respect the fragility of the objects surrounding me. There is a breakage, a loss, a mourning that in week’s parasha. As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. In the retelling of the story of this week’s reading in Deuteronomy. Having been told in the most clear-cut language, that Moses broke the tablets – Moses is commanded to build new tablets. And God said to me, Cut two tablets of stone like the first and I will write on the tablets the words that were in the first tablets which you broke.[1] It’s that ‘which you broke’ piece which demands attention – asher shibarta. We all know Moses broke the tablets. We’ve just heard that Moses broke the tablets. Why do we need to hear it again? We could understand the ‘which you broke’ in the same sense that a wife might tell a husband, ‘And you have to get the kitchen cabinet fixed – which you broke.’ Perhaps the ‘which you broke’ serves as a little jab of the finger. A little puncturing of our ability to pretend that we did no wrong. Maybe the which you broke is best understood as a passive aggressive way to skewer those who break into our comfort zone with their clumsiness or anger. After all, none of us likes having broken things lying around. We can all get a little passive aggressive, Maybe even God too. Or maybe not. In the Talmud[2] Reish Lakish suggests a different way to read this ‘finger-jabbing’ phrase. Instead of asher shibarta – which you have broken, Reish Lakish suggests we should read these words – ishur shibarta –‘I will strengthen you since you broke them.’ It’s a radical read. Asher – which we would happily understand as a finger-jabbing ‘which’ is instead to be understood as the first person future of a word connecting to strength. If Reish Lakish to be taken seriously then the phrase asher shibarta, far from being a finger pointing angry – don’t you mess with My tablets oh Moses – becomes a Divine endorsement. As the Talmud puts it this was one of the things that Moses did of his own will, vhiskim hakodesh baruch hu imo And God agreed with him. The tablets needed to be broken. Yeshar kochecha shshibarta - well done for breaking them. What good is done by breaking the tablets? I suspect it allows the story to continue. Unbroken the tablets would have leered at the sinning Children of Israel – and you shall have no other gods They would have been trapped in their past, in their failure. Moses has broken the tablets to put a line under the past, to move on. Creativity, the future, they demand that something, first, be broken. It’s a cliché but there is truth in the notion that one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. A person cannot grow by staying the same. A person cannot change by holding tightly to everything they possess. Some things need to be broken to allow us to move on. And breaking something allows a clarity. It allows us to draw a line under our past and stops it from overwhelming our present. And what goes for a person, of course, goes for a community. But there is something else. Something truly important. We don’t throw out the broken pieces of the old design. After all the pieces of the broken tablets were never thrown out. In Deuteronomy the asher shibarta verse continues with the injunction - and you will put them in the ark."[3] It’s that word ‘them’ One might think it refers only to the shiny new tablets. But the Rabbis declare Luhot v'shivrei luhot munachim ba'aron[4] The tablets and the broken tablets are to be placed in the ark. We carry the broken tablets with us. They sit, say the Rabbis, alongside the new tablets in the ark. That’s a glorious spiritual message – you carry with you the new and the old together. The broken and the, as yet, unbroken. We have tablets, we break tablets, we make new tablets and we schlep the whole thing along with us into the future - Our broken tablets and our yet to be broken tablets. Schlepping around the broken bits reminds us of our past – all its glories and all its failures – that’s a good thing. In addition, schlepping around the broken bits reminds us that everything gets broken eventually – logos, kitchen cabinets, you, me, the very buildings we stand in – we’re all doomed to become fragmentary shards eventually. That’s a good thing to remember too. And breaking the old allows us to walk on into the future. My natural inclination is not like it when things get broken. My natural inclination is to whisk away the fragments Into a bin with them – no use crying over spilt milk and all that. But the religious way is more subtle. Heavier to carry around, but ultimately more honest. The religious way is to break our tablets, carve new tablets and carry both broken and unbroken as we make our way into the future.

[1] Deut 10:1-2 [2] Sanhedrin 87a, see Rashi ad loc. See also the last Rashi on the Torah [3] Deuteronomy 10:2 [4] Bava Batra 14b

1 comment:

Eva said...

This is very profound, perhaps especially for those of us who know your "way", your halakhah.
You know, I still have the broken pieces of things I broke a long time ago, mostly wrapped carefully - one learns to live with the pain of the shards' edges.

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