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Broken Things

5 minute read
Straightforward

At Mount Sinai, Moshe ascended for forty days to receive the Torah. He didn’t show up when people expected, so they got nervous and clamored for something to direct their attention towards. In a moment of madness, they crafted a Golden Calf, and in a bizarre turn of events, labeled it as the god that brought them out of Egypt.

As they celebrate their new object of attention and worship with a festival of dancing, song, and sacrifice, Moshe returns to our world with the original Ten Commandments, a mythical artifact with magical properties crafted by God’s fingers. Moshe enters the camp only to witnesses these festivities, and, utterly horrified, throws down the tablets, permanently shattering them.

Now that the first tablets were broken, we have to make do with the second tablets, which are almost second class in comparison. The first tablets contained a Torah that humans could never forget; the second ones contain a Torah we forget all the time. Whereas God had crafted the first ones, a human had to craft the second.

The consequences of the Golden Calf were enormous; God threatened to destroy them all there and then, at least until Moshe intervened. Our sages suggest that the sin was so grave that every bit of human suffering pays down a sliver of the damage done by the Golden Calf.

Another common thread people take from this story is the profound loss of what might have been; a more perfect world that never even got a chance to get started. Our sages teach that the letters began peeling off the surface and wafting back to the sky even before Moshe broke the tablets, which is how he understood that his people were no longer worthy.

The lessons of damage and loss are correct but miss something essential.

Sure, Moshe shattered the tablets, but what did they do with the broken pieces?

When God told Moshe to craft the second set of tablets, God also tells Moshe what to do with them:

וְאֶכְתֹּב עַל־הַלֻּחֹת אֶת־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל־הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ וְשַׂמְתָּם בָּאָרוֹן – “I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the Ark.” (10:2)

Our sages read the instruction to put “them” in the Ark as not only referring to Moshe’s second tablets; but also to the first tablets that he had smashed – הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ / וְשַׂמְתָּם בָּאָרוֹן.

The broken tablets are not buried, not forgotten, not hidden, and not lost. Instead, they are stored in the Ark, alongside the new, whole second tablets. As one writer beautifully put it, shattered remnants of the past still matter, persist in their importance, and deserve preservation and remembrance, just like something whole.

In this conception, the broken tablets are a striking symbol of brokenness and wholeness coexisting side by side at Judaism’s most sacred site. This is the comprehensive picture of the Golden Calf story and its aftermath, and it should reorient our attitude to broken things and setbacks. It’s not a story about breaking things; it’s a story about what we do when we break things, and the epilogue is that you pick up the pieces and move forward.

In Japanese culture, there is an art form of restoring broken pottery by gluing the cracks and seams distinctively, often with gold lacquer; breakage and subsequent repair are part of the proud history of the object, rather than something to disguise.

We might call forgetting and moving on from what we break bouncing back, but that’s not how people are; that’s not how the world works. Everything leaves its mark; sometimes a scratch, sometimes a bruise, and sometimes a deep scar or void that never quite goes away.

Perhaps we’re not supposed to bounce back at all; maybe it’s better to bounce forward.

The shattered remnants of the past belonged in the Ark, and we ought to remember that the Ark wasn’t a mere prop; it featured prominently in the Jewish People’s travels and wars. It went out in front of them, leading the way, which is to say that any step forward was paved by the broken tablets as much as the whole tablets.

Perhaps the first tablets represent an idealism that crashes into reality and shatters into pieces. While admittedly easy to say, perhaps their example shows that these hopes aren’t permanently lost to the ether. Rather than becoming cynical and jaded from traumatic experience and upheaval, discarding the vision of what could have been, you might be able to recover remnants that persist, incorporating them with the real world you inhabit. It won’t look quite how you thought, but maybe some parts can in some ways. Sometimes we have to break and let go of what we hoped could be in order to make way for what is and must be.

Moshe didn’t break the tablets out of violent anger; his people and their world simply weren’t ready for the first tablets. Letting go of them, however damaging and terrible, was a necessary part of the healing process, paving the way for his people to build a world on a foundation of broken ideals. There’s nothing sad about that; that’s just the way life is.

The Torah closes with a line of praise for Moshe, the faithful shepherd, endorsing his strength and valor – וּלְכֹל הַיָּד הַחֲזָקָה וּלְכֹל הַמּוֹרָא הַגָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה לְעֵינֵי כּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל. Our sages take this as a reference to some of the things Moshe intuited on his own, which God only endorsed after the fact, one of which is breaking the tablets – אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ / יִישַׁר כֹּחֲךָ שֶׁשִּׁבַּרְתָּ.

On Simchas Torah, after we complete the Torah with that line, we immediately begin again, a new beginning built on breaking, breaking that is holy, breaking that God endorses, and breaking that stands before us and alongside the best we have to offer. On the ashes of failure, God teaches Moshe how his people can make amends, and gives him the formula that features so prominently in our prayers on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. The healing from this rupture led to the Mishkan project, which all subsequent prayer, sacrifice, and worship center around. The remarkable quality of a comeback is not in spite of setbacks; it is because of them.

The Megaleh Amukos notes that the season of repentance and making amends is Ellul, and is an acronym for the Ark, the tablets, and the broken tablet they sit alongside – אלול / ארון לוחת ושברי לוחת.

We all break things, and we experience brokenness in different ways over the course of our journey. When we lose someone, that loss leaves a void with their shape imprinted in our hearts, and we carry that brokenness forever. After pain and loss, life goes on, only differently than before; we now live with two sets of tablets.

Brokenness is not something to conceal or deny; it is an essential part of being human. The moments that break us are as significant to our growth as the moments that make us whole. We can find sanctity not only in whole tablets; but in shattered ones, as well. If we honor that brokenness and carry it with us, it can become sacred, Holy of Holies. In the words of the Kotzker, there is nothing so whole as a broken heart.

Take heart in the image of Moshe on his hands and knees, lovingly gathering the precious fragments, collecting every shard, then gently placing each sacred sliver one by one in the Ark, a brilliant glimmer of hope that lingers for posterity.

We live in a world of the second tablets. Although the first ones couldn’t exist in their wholeness, they could exist in their brokenness, and maybe we can pick up some of those pieces and find a place for them to help shape our world. There is no paradox of broken and whole; they exist in a reciprocal interaction. We must find a way to marry the broken with the whole, hopeful idealism with gritty reality.

Whatever the past may have been, it is all we have to stand on as we build and reach for a brighter and more hopeful future.

The Bittersweet Symphony

7 minute read
Straightforward

We’ve spent the best part of a year reading the Torah’s greatest story, about how Yakov’s family grew until they were duped into working on public infrastructure that slowly slipped into full-blown slavery; and about how God remembered His promises to their ancestors, and He sends Moshe to save them. We have followed this journey through all the adventures and detours, through the highs and lows, and we’re approaching the end.

But it doesn’t quite go how we might expect. 

Spoiler alert: Moshe dies. 

Actually, his brother dies too, and so does his sister, and come to think of it, so does every single soul that walked out of Egypt.

We’ve probably read it too many times to notice, but the protagonists do not get a happy ending for all their troubles. It almost feels like the opposite, like they utterly failed. Moshe just can’t get this stubborn bunch over the finish line, and none of them ever get to the Promised Land; they all die in the wilderness. 

Moshe didn’t want the job, arguing that they wouldn’t listen. He was spot on and spent the rest of his days fighting their worst inclinations. But he still only ever wanted to save them! After agreeing to take on the mission, he felt like God was taking too long to save his troubled and weary brethren, and in a quite shocking turn, confronts God and tells Him off – לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה! 

Maybe the people tried their best, and their best simply wasn’t good enough. But even if we could accept that they were traumatized and, perhaps on some level, never truly left Egypt behind them, you need a heart of stone not to think that perhaps Moshe might have deserved a little better after all that – עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא.

Right at the end of his life, he asks God to allow him to enter the Land of Israel, quite possibly the only instance of a personal indulgence Moshe ever asks for, and God declines this request.

Of all people, doesn’t Moshe, God’s most faithful shepherd, supremely trusted above all others, deserve a happy ending?

And before you dismiss the question as childish – because, after all, life isn’t a fairy tale – perhaps the question is better phrased as a personal question on the long journey our souls are on; how do we reconcile ourselves to the fact that not even the greatest of us gets a happy ending?

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that we need to remind ourselves that perfection is ever elusive and lies perpetually out of reach; failure to achieve perfection does not equal failure, so perhaps we need to reconfigure our expectations. Even if the Jewish People would never shake their demons and were doomed from the start, they didn’t fail. Even if Moshe couldn’t finish the job the way he’d have liked, he didn’t fail.

There’s no happy ending, but perhaps the expectation of a happy ending is our own baggage that we bring along and project as the outcome we’d prefer to see. We are making the error of imposing our expectations on the story, and the story confounds our expectations plain as day, that it’s just not how it works.

There is a separate physical and spiritual reality, and it’s the world of spirit that matters most, where we find the battlefield of human achievement and sanctification. God did not want Moshe to lead the Jewish People from Egypt to Israel for reasons that are not only ultimately inscrutable; but, perhaps in a certain sense, don’t really matter to us at all. God does not ask us to cure cancer and secure world peace; those reach their conclusions in the physical world, and that is not given to us to control. Instead, God asks us to exercise our ethics and wisdom in the spiritual realm, where we can choose to act as best as we can under the circumstances – a moral victory. 

God’s hand is not directly perceptible to us; it’s only apparent in hindsight as things unfold. It has to be that way, so God can influence the world without compromising the freedom of His creations. God’s intervention does not remove the significance of our choices, but in many ways, it can redeem those choices. Or, to put it in another way, we are only responsible for our choices and not for the outcome of those choices; we are responsible for the means, while the ends are solely in God’s hands. 

And so, by necessity, we need to bifurcate moral victory from physical victory.

Physical victory is fantasy, and we all know it; when you get the job, pass the test, get married, buy the house, have the baby, win the deal, there is never a glorious moment of victory. Life will go on just the same as yesterday and the day before, and you will still be you – and it’s just as true if those things aren’t going quite the way you’d like! 

Moshe didn’t struggle with this; he didn’t have a savior complex. He did all he humanly could for his people, and no more, and he knew he had not let God or his people down. He did not live with our question about deserving a happier ending; he let go of the outcome he might have wanted – once it wasn’t on the cards, getting there no longer mattered to him. He was not bitter, and died entirely at peace, with no qualms or regrets – מיתת נשיקה. He never thinks for even one moment that he deserves better; even if at certain points he thinks it’s too hard and threatens to quit. He demonstrated the stoic quality of outcome independence, with complete trust in God that this was simply the way it was supposed to be.

Quite arguably, this is faith played straight; accepting that this is how it has to be right now, and not shying away from it in any way. He was wholly in touch with the now, figuring out how to move forward with no questions about how we got there or why.

That’s not just a story; it’s a fact of life, the human condition, and because Moshe knew it, he could leave this world happy and fulfilled.

Despite the apparent lack of any obvious physical victory, Moshe’s entire life was a living symposium on moral victory. He wanted to save them from suffering in Egypt, and he did. He wanted to give them a future, and he did. He gave all he had for as long as he had breath in him to secure a future for all of us. 

It is not within human capacity to see all ends and decide our fates. Moshe gets to the threshold of the Promised Land, a dream centuries in the making, but never quite gets there; it leaves us no room for pride or self-righteousness, the way many happy endings do, but there is no trace of failure or regret. 

It’s not a sad ending; it’s bittersweet and true to life as we know it. 

The conclusion of the Torah’s greatest story is much more powerful than a patronizing and simple happy ending. It seems to emphasize that this is what even the greatest human successes and victories can look like, reinforcing a belief that ought to guide us through hard times; that, ultimately, no matter how bad things get, there is no darkness greater than the light, and there is always hope, and the future will shine bright. 

This bittersweet ending reasserts the theme of moral victories being more important than physical victories by showing us what is within our power and what is not. Whatever the circumstances, and against all forms of adversity, it is within us to be great; to be brave, gentle, hopeful, kind, and strong, like our heroes Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, Yosef, Moshe, Ahron, and Miriam. We shouldn’t expect a happily ever after ending because that’s just not how it works. 

Moshe deserves all honor because he led his people out of the fires of Egypt and spent every last reserve of body and will, which was just sufficient to bring them to a destined point and no further. Moshe could not lead their journey to completion the way he set out to, but that’s not what defines his greatness or success, and it does not make his life or their story any less complete. It was his choice to give himself entirely to the cause that granted him his victory, his moral victory, and it’s that choice that makes him worthy of the highest honors, with the unique title of Rabbeinu, Our Teacher, whose name we remember for eternity.

As R’ Eytan Feiner sharply notes, who better than Moshe Rabbeinu to demonstrate this tremendous lesson? Moshe, the avatar of ultimate loyalty and service, did all he could, and although he didn’t get what he might have wanted, what he got was enough for him. 

As our Sages remind us, we must ground ourselves. The ends are not given to us, and we don’t always get to finish what we set out to do, but that mustn’t stop us – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. Sometimes you’ll get to save the day, and sometimes you’ll only get to pass the baton on to the next generation. Other times, you’ll collapse in sight of the finish line, and your work will remain unfinished; but the outcome does not determine the victory. 

The Torah does not end with the patronizing and sickly sweetness of a great physical victory, with Moshe leading his people to a happily ever after. That’s not how the world we live in works. But if there’s no happily ever after, there is an ever after. His victory is bittersweet, but it lingers on in us sitting here three thousand years later learning about him and his battles; his moral victory stands forever. 

The Torah doesn’t end how we expect and instead ends with a transition; they’re about to cross the border, and a new generation with new leaders will write new books for the challenges of a new era. Each story is incomplete, theirs and ours. But that does not detract from the achievements of Moshe and the Jewish People, and it does not dishonor the faith and trust our ancestors had in God. 

Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov knew it, Moshe, Ahron, and Miriam knew it, and they lived in peace with it. Yet we struggle with it all the time, even though we are the living embodiment of things not going quite the way we’d expect, and even though it screams out of every single page of Jewish history.

So, perhaps rather than ask why the Torah doesn’t give Moshe and the Jewish People the happy ending we expect, we should invert the question. With all we know, why do we still hold on so tightly to our expectations of how things ought to be?

We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.

Humility Redux

2 minute read
Straightforward

We take for granted that humility is an admirable virtue, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider what humility is and also what it is not.

Humility is commonly understood to mean a low estimate of oneself and one’s accomplishments. The Oxford English Dictionary defines humility as “the quality of being humble: having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits.”

But this doesn’t ring true with what Judaism teaches us about the value of humility.

The Midrash famously teaches that Mount Sinai was only a little mountain to show how instrumental humility is.

But if the educational purpose of giving the Torah in such a place is to illustrate the value of humility, then you’d assume a valley would be a more appropriate geological feature to teach the lesson!

So why give the Torah on a mountain at all?

The Shem M’shmuel states that to accept the Torah and live its ideals, you must be like a mountain, not a valley; or as Pirkei Avos puts it, if I don’t stand up for myself, what am I?

As important as the quality of humility is, people who accept the Torah upon themselves must consider themselves important and deserving of the Torah.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches that humility is an appreciation of our talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self-deprecating thought, but the dedication of oneself to something higher.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi notes that the Torah labels Moshe as the most humble of all men. If humility is simply a low view of oneself, then Moshe, the Lawgiver and single greatest authority on the Torah would meekly cave to any challenge – which he obviously couldn’t and didn’t. But if humility is about being of service, then Moshe truly was the most humble of all men – Moshe singularly dedicated his entire life to public service. His achievements were never about him or his status; they were all in furtherance of rescuing and building the Jewish people.

It was no lack of humility for Moshe to acknowledge his own authority and leadership. When a person believes they are nothing, then ultimately, the Torah itself will have little effect in elevating him. Although pride is a dangerous vice in large quantities, a small amount is still an essential ingredient to living a good life.

Pride is about competing – that you are smarter than or richer than; humility is about serving. Humility isn’t the opposite of narcissism and hubris; it’s the lack of them. In the absence of pride, you find humility, which sees no need for competition.

So perhaps humility is not that you are nothing; it’s just that it’s not about you anymore. In humility, you are no more and no less than other people. Humility is not about hiding away, becoming a wallflower or a doormat; it is about the realization that your abilities and actions are not better or less. They simply are.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

Walking God’s Way

2 minute read
Straightforward

For all the time we spend learning Torah, we ought to orient ourselves with what we are trying to accomplish.

Two of the most frequently quoted yet misrepresented answers are to be holy and to dwell on Torah day and night – קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם / וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה.

The instruction to dwell on Torah day and night is only a sentence fragment. After the Torah concludes with Moshe passing on, and Joshua’s succession to leadership, God’s first directive to him is instructive:

לֹא-יָמוּשׁ סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה מִפִּיךָ, וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה, לְמַעַן תִּשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת, כְּכָל-הַכָּתוּב בּוֹ כִּי-אָז תַּצְלִיחַ אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאָז תַּשְׂכִּיל – This book of Law must not leave your mouth; you must dwell on it day and night, so you will observe and perform everything it says…

Echoing this instruction to learn in order to do, the Gemara lauds study that leads to action and teaches that wisdom’s purpose is to foster repentance and good deeds – תִּשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת.

The Chafetz Chaim notes that observing the commandments is only any good when it brings us to walk in God’s ways. The Mishna reiterates that the main thing is not the strategy, but the execution – וְלֹא הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הָעִקָּר, אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה.

These extracts are a cross-section of a recurring theme – we study the Torah to live it. But how do we know we’re doing it right?

One of the Torah’s meta-principles is that we should emulate God:

כִּי תִשְׁמֹר, אֶת-מִצְות ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהָלַכְתָּ, בִּדְרָכָיו – You shall observe Hashem’s commandments, and walk in His ways… (28:8)

The Gemara and Midrash note that since we cannot replicate God’s perfect justice, we can only emulate God’s kindness and compassion. R’ Eliyahu Dessler teaches that the image of God we are created with is what allows us to be compassionate.

The Sifri teaches that to understand God, we should learn the stories in the Torah and come to act like God – with more kindness and compassion.

The commandment to be holy also echoes the instruction to emulate God – קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי. It is not some esoteric call for ethereal holiness. What follows are simple laws, and loving your neighbor is foremost among them – וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי ה.

It should be no surprise that Hill and Rabbi Akiva famously classified this as the Torah’s Golden Rule – we emulate a God who is kind and compassionate by loving others – אֲנִי ה.

The Baal HaTanya notes that we are not commanded to love humanity in the abstract; but individuals in particular – the fallible, flesh and blood person nearby who gets on your nerves. The Baal Shem Tov taught that we must accept others and their flaws as surely as we accept our own.

The moment we finish the Torah, we start over anew from the beginning. This ritual of perpetual cycles is powerfully symbolic of what the Torah is all about: the Midrash says that the beginning, middle, and end of Torah – the entire undercurrent – are about kindness.

The Gemara notes that the Torah opens with God caring for Adam by making his clothes, and closes with God caring for Moshe by burying his faithful lawgiver – God deeply cares for humans, to the extent that no work is menial.

The only litmus test of our engagement with Torah is whether it makes us kinder and more compassionate – דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכָל-נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם.

 

The Loop

< 1 minute
Straightforward

On certain special occasions, we make a blessing called Shehecheyanu, expressing thanks for the opportunity of experiencing the event.

Finishing the Torah cycle on Simchas Torah is a significant milestone, yet we don’t say the Shehecheyanu blessing.

Why not?

R’ Shlomo Farhi points out that the first word in the Torah is בראשית, and the last, ישראל. The first and last letters in the Torah spell out לב – heart. The Torah only wants an emotional investment from us – רחמנה ליבא בעי.

But in the correct order, it also spells out בל, as in בלבל or מבלבל, meaning “confused” or “mixed up”. When we look at the ocean of Torah before us, it is בלבל – uncharted and unknown territory. But looking back, it is our לב.

A Torah cycle does not stand in isolation – every new cycle amplifies previous cycles.

This lends light to the old adage that the Torah never finishes, and why we immediately loop back to the beginning. There is no end, only a constant battle against בלבל by way of לב, finishing again. And again. And again.

In other words, there’s no והגיענו!

It’s not the Torah we complete every year, only the cycle.