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Brokenness, Wholeness and Holiness

Yom Kippur, 5770/2009
Rabbi Audrey Marcus-Berkman

On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the way in which this season calls us to turn, return (teshuvah) to our bare, innermost, essential selves, stripped of all that is superficial. On Yom Kippur, we live the pinnacle of this experience—never are we more vulnerable, raw, bare – acknowledging and asking forgiveness for all we have done wrong—all the ways in which we’ve failed to be our best selves, our true selves. On Yom Kippur we step outside of time and the bounds of the earthly realm as entirely as it is possible to do while still alive. Yom Kippur is often understood as an enactment of death while alive. The viddui, the confessional, is said on only two occasions: at death and on Yom Kippur. Acting as if we have no physical needs, stepping beyond our physical selves, surely is as close to death as we can voluntarily bring ourselves. When we transcend ourselves in this way we are admitting our own finitude, our own mortality, our own contingent existence; we are able to see ourselves as we cannot when we are inhabiting this earthly realm. Each of us will inevitably find different things when we experience this process of self-examination, of teshuvah as a return to the innermost self; but all of us will find that in some way, we are broken, and broken-hearted.

Today I would like to explore the possibilities and meanings of this day in terms of brokenness and wholeness: What does brokenness mean in our life, in the universe, and what can and must we do with it on Yom Kippur , when we are more in touch with our brokenness than at any other time? Also, I want to think about what the symbolism and liturgy of this day can do to our brokenness.

We come here today….broken. Broken hearts, broken bodies, broken souls. Though it may sound presumptuous, I can say this with confidence, because we are all human beings, and even if we have lived the most fortunate of lives until this point, we have surely experienced brokenness. Even if, so far, we have lived without the death of a beloved person, or a major illness, or some other devastating suffering, our birth itself was a kind of breaking apart – a breaking away from our mother and into an existence in the world that we didn’t ask for, and that, at the time, we didn’t want (hence our cries when we are born, and the parents’ struggle to re-enact the womb with swaddling, etc.)

You might assume that the more we have suffered, the more we have lost, the more that we are in touch with that suffering, that brokenness, the more we might reject the very idea of God. Today I want to talk about how our tradition approaches this in exactly the opposite way. Just lookthe holiest day in our year is the one in which we acknowledge brokenness. Not only do we acknowledge that we have failed ourselves and others and we hope to do better, but we also that we are broken in the sense that others have failed us, that God has failed us; that we are disappointed, that we are missing something, someone. That some aspects of our lives are not as they should or could be.

To see what our tradition has to say about brokenness, let’s begin at the beginning: The creation of the world. According to the tradition of Lurianic kabbalah, the school of Jewish mysticism that dates back to the 16th century and its founder, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the “Ari”), the world is made up of sparks of divine energy that resulted from a shattering of the vessels that God (Ein Sof) poured God’s energy into to create the world. The vessels could not hold such strong divine energy, so they shattered, and these shards scattered out into the world, forming creation as we now know it. “Shevirat hakelim,” the breaking of the vessels, this is called. A major creation story of our people is founded on brokenness.

Moving forward in time, from the creation of the world to the creation of the covenant between God and the Jewish people: In the book of Exodus, Moses shatters the first set of tablets upon which the ten commandments were written. He shatters them in anger after descending the mountain to find that the Israelites have built a golden calf, an idol. A midrash tells us that on Yom Kippur, Moses received the second set of tablets. The midrash asks – what happened to the broken tablets at that point? “Rabbi Judah bar Ilai taught that two arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness – one in which the Torah was kept and one in which the tablets broken by Moses were kept. The one in which the Torah was placed was kept in the Tent of Meeting; the other, containing the broken tablets, would come and go with them.” (Sefer ha aggadah 89, from talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 1:1) The broken tablets would come and go with them. From this we can infer that the broken tablets are somehow even more special and treasured by the people – they took them with us wherever they traveled. Just as we take the broken parts of ourselves with us wherever we go. There is another tradition that the broken and the intact tablets were placed side by side in the ark. In any case, clearly, there is value in what is broken.

In the book of psalms we have two verses that speak about broken-heartedness: “karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” (God is close to the broken-hearted)(34:18) . There is also another verse, “True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not reject.” (51:19) An early midrash commented upon this verse, reflecting on the Biblical prohibition of using any kind of blemished animal or utensil to offer a sacrifice. “Rabbi Abba bar Yudan said: What is considered ritually impure in an animal, is permitted in a human being. An animal is unfit if it is broken or maimed or with a growth (Lev. 22:22), but in a person abroken and contrite heart is considered fit. Rabbi Aexandri said: if an ordinary person makes use of a broken vessel, it is a shameful thing. But the Blessed Holy One only makes use of broken vessels, as it is written, Adonai is close to the broken-hearted (Psalms 34:19)

And moving forward to the time of the birth of the Hasidic movement, the 18th century – there is a saying from the Kotzker Rebbe: “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart” Another hasidic story states that a broken heart is “a master key…that opens all doors” to God.  The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, understood that a broken heart is “the epitome of spiritual work.” (chabad website.) Some of the Hasidic masters understood a broken heart this way because of the way that the ego, the sense of oneself as a separate individual disconnected from the rest of creation, would crack when the heart was broken. One Hasidic rebbe, Reb Tzadok HaKohen , interpreted a verse from the great mystical work, the Zohar: “Open for me a door the size of a pin-hole, and I will open for you the supernal gates," the Zohar quotes God as saying. “A pin-size hole is enough to let God in, but it must pierce the heart entirely,” commented Reb Tzadok HaKohen.

In other words, when our heart breaks, it breaks open, and in the space, the expanse, that is created, God can come in. Sometimes the “God,” the holiness, that comes in, comes in the form of the support and love of other people. When you cry, and let others know you are suffering, you provide an opening for someone to embrace you or give you a shoulder to cry on or an opening for someone to listen to you pour out your heart. If you stay closed (“where I am closed, I am false”  writes the great poet, Rilke) you don’t make space for someone to come and lift up your broken shards to the light – the light of relationship, of love, which is most holy. Or sometimes, the holiness we let in to the open space might come in the form of an insight, some clarity about what we need or must do.

On this day, we bring our broken hearts here. We bring our brokenness. And our breaking open creates a great big open space where the holy can get in. We all stand here together, “agudah achat” as the u’netaneh tokef prayer calls it – as one community, chanting the viddui and the al cheyt, sometimes silently, sometimes aloud, sometimes alone, sometimes together, acknowledging our failures and our disappointments, our hurts and our brokenness; as Rabbi Toba Spitzer has written, “…we tap our chest gently during each recitation of wrongdoing, as if we are saying – broken, broken broken; open, open, open.” To quote another verse from psalms “Min Hametzar Karati Yah, Anani va’merchav Ya” – “from out of the deepest depths I called out to God, and God answered me from a vast expanse.” We create the expansiveness from which God’s “answer” comes, when we cry out from the depths…God’s answer is simply God’s presence (sometimes in the form of other people supporting us, etc.) With all of our broken shards together we make a vast expanse. Yom Kippur is filled with imagery of openness, of expanse, and of light. The ark is open much of the time; during the Neilah service, it remains open the whole time; the neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur is based on imagery of the gates of heaven, having been open for the entire period of the ten days of teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, now closing; In a traditional synagogue setting, spending so much of the 25 hours in shul, you would see the ner tamid, the eternal light, before the ark the entire time; many in the community are wearing white; in the evening service, a time when usually we would not wear a tallit, we wear our tallitot just as we do in the day; light, space, openness – all of this imagery comes to counter the brokenness we come here with on this day. By the end of Yom Kippur, as the Neilah service comes to a close with the recitation of the Shema, proclaiming the wholeness/unity of God (mirrored in the unity of creation) and the sounding of one, long, unbroken note of the shofar (tekiah g’dolah), we have been so broken open that we are whole again.

More on that later. Now, I want to say more about what happens when we come together and hold all of this brokenness “up to the light” Anyone who has ever been the parent of a young child knows what can happen at the end of a long day, when the child has been in the care of someone else, holding it together, and then the end of the day comes, and the child just….falls apart. Cries at the drop of a hat, whines, shouts, throws a tantrum…they are breaking open for you, holding their broken parts (tired, hungry, upset, whatever) up to you, up to the light, because they can, because they are safe….they break open, and what do you do, as a parent? You hug that child tight. You accept them, unconditionally, in all their brokenness. They know that you will. And they emerge from your embrace….whole again. It struck me the other evening when I was experiencing just that, that it is like a little Yom Kippur. All year, we are “holding it together,” if we want to, we can pretend that we are perfectly ok, that we are whole….we can brush right over our broken parts….either because it isn’t in our nature to express them, to break ourselves open to others and let others take care of us (or to break open to ourselves and take care of ourselves), or because we’re just too darn busy with work, with the day-to-day, with taking care of other people…but then, Yom Kippur comes, and we are given this blessed, incredible opportunity to just let it all go. We come together here, stripped bare (as we spoke about on RH), honest and raw and without our “leaves,” pure, real, essence, and we admit, we confess, all our imperfections, we see, and we remember, all our brokenness, and we gather up the broken shards and we offer them up to our creator (no coincidence that God as parent is the dominant metaphor on this day), we hold them up to the light, we break open and we are embraced, we are accepted, just as we are. And we can emerge from that embrace, whole again, but carrying our broken pieces still inside of us, like the Israelites carried the broken tablets along with the whole tablets.

In the traditional Torah reading for this morning, in Leviticus chapter 16, we read about the High Priests entering the Holy of Holies, the Kodesh HaKodashim, the inner sanctum. They go there to purify it of ritual impurities; they sprinkle blood of the sin offerings for the priests and the people within the innermost shrine and upon the alter. This, in combination of the confession of the Israelites (verse 21) and the scapegoat being sent off into the wilderness symbolically carrying off the Israelites’ sins, atones for the sins of the Israelites once each year, on the tenth day of the seventh month, the day we now know as Yom Kippur. I wonder if perhaps our brokenness on this day, which, as I’ve said, makes a place for God to enter, allows for this process also to happen in the reverse: Perhaps, when we break open, we let God into our innermost sanctum – we let the divine light into our deepest hurts. The light illumines these hurts, and this is painful, because it is the very opposite of covering them over or ignoring them, but the light is also cleansing and healing.

I want to share something with you about my own brokenness. On June 17, 1998, when I was 24, my father died suddenly. He was 53 years old. My father was also my closest friend and greatest source of emotional support. We spoke every day, and shared everything from our sense of humor to our sense of awe and wonder at the universe and at this great gift of life. Because I tend to work through things using language, because I love words, it was words that came to me first, after the initial, breath-taking shock of that phone call telling me that my dad was gone. The words that came to me were: “I am privileged to be on intimate terms with the ultimate mystery.” Not “privileged” in the sense that anyone should or would choose to have such an experience, but I simply felt that I was right there in the belly of the beast, the inner sanctum, the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies. I felt like I was as close as it was possible to come to the source of all life – the mystery – God. I felt, like no other time in my life, that I was on intimate terms with the greatest mystery. I felt like I was in the inner sanctum, up close with that which we can never understand…I was broken open, completely, and in that space in my broken heart, something holy entered. This “something holy” took many forms – sometimes, it was the poems that would come to me in the middle of the night that I’d rouse myself to write down; sometimes, it was the words or embrace of another person; space was made in me for something to enter. Of course, I would give anything to be able to talk to my father one more time, to be able to feel his arms around me and see his trademark proud smile as I spoke to him about my work, my dreams. I would give up this experience of something divine coming into the depths of my heart in…well, a heartbeat….if I could have my Dad back. But my Dad isn’t coming back, and I am telling you what came into my broken heart when I lost him.

The words of psalm 121 – “The Lord will guard your going and your coming now and forever” have been a comfort to me for many years. As I grieved for my father, I reminded myself that the same mysterious power that had brought my father into the world had carried him out of the world, and the same power that had brought our souls together had separated us. I felt that through this recognition, I was experiencing the truth of the words of the Shema, “Adonai Echad” on a new, powerful, and visceral level, and this, too, was a comfort to me. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes, of life’s journey: “let everything happen to you, beauty and terror…” We come into this world unbidden and are separated form this world by the same miraculous power. “Adonai Echad” “Adonai Yishmor Tzeitcha u’voecha.” “God is One.” “God will guard your going out and your coming in.”

The terror of loss, the beauty of birth – each is predicated on the other. Without impermanence, it would not be possible to truly love. Loss is an every-day, every-moment occurance. It is part of the very fabric of the universe, as creation itself is predicated upon loss of union with our Creator, and love is predicated upon separation of one mortal individual from another such that inevitably a beloved will be lost. Relationship equals life, which is what is most holy. Just as relationship, and therefore, love, are only possible when there is a distance between two individuals (so a brokenness, a separation), so too the shattered heart is most alive; the shattered heart has a space to take in the essential truth of life, and can therefore glimpse the Creator. Of course, we do not strive for a broken heart, but in some way, along each soul’s path, the heart does break, and when it breaks, it breaks open. To truly feel the brokenness is fundamental to our health – to our emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual health. And our tradition in all its wisdom gives us the gift of an annual opportunity to let down our guard, feel the brokenness, and let in holiness and healing, so that we emerge cleansed and whole.


The ark is kept open throughout the entire Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur. Perhaps this is to symbolize the peak of our (broken-)openness, and God’s openness, the vast expanse we’ve created to let God in. The open ark symbolizes our meeting the divine in the vast expanse. As my colleague, Rabbi Brant Rosen has written: “Perhaps the central image of the High Holidays, the open gates of heaven, is just a mirror image of our own broken hearts. And perhaps it is when the gates finally close at Neilah that we ultimately experience this one profound truth: there is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”

As I mentioned earlier, what are the very last things we do as Yom Kippur concludes, as “the gates are closed,” as we step out from the vast expanse we’ve created with our brokenness, as we step away from the light? We say the Shema, we say “The Lord is God,”, and we blow the shofar – one loud tekiah gdolah. To say the shema is to recognize that it is ONE who creates and destroys – it is all part of a whole. Holding up our brokenness to the light, or letting the light in to the broken spaces, makes us recognize ECHAD, the oneness of God, and makes us whole, by the end of the day when we say the shema. Many have noticed that the word “atonement” can be read as at-one-ment. There is something about this day that makes us One. We emerge, at the end of this day, so broken open that we are whole again. As if we were turned inside out and the divine light inside of us has spilled out, blending and merging with the divine light inside of everyone else. Agudah achat. At-one-ment. Adonai Echad. We have experienced, and  recognized,  that we are all suffering, that we are all connected, and that the source, the divine essence in each of us, is the same. We are made of the same stuff. We are not alone. We have nothing to fear. We walk out “into life,” (as the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig expressed), feeling more connected in our brokenness, becausewe have broken open to one another (and therefore, to God)

  At the moment when the shofar sounds its clear, unbroken note at the end of the neilah service, we are whole. We recognize that beauty and terror, it is all One, and that God is One. But the thing about life is, having been made whole, we have to go right back to being our broken selves again. To quote my colleague, Rabbi Jen Feldman: “Listen, though, to the sound of the shofar. It has something to tell us. On Rosh Hashanah we sound a tekiah – a single, whole note. We follow it with three shorter blasts – called shevarim, which literally means “shattered ones,” and then we sound tekiah again.Technically, the duration of shevarim should be the same as that of tekiah: that is, the sum of the three shattered notes should equal the one whole note. So, when sounding shevarim, the person blowing shofar must remember and hear in their mind the unbroken tekiah – and when sounding tekiah, the shofar blower must simultaneously hear the broken notes of shevarim. As with the call of the shofar, so too with our lives. We weave between brokenness and wholeness, and learn to hold on to one in the midst of the other.” Our tradition reflects this need to weave brokenness and wholeness – to carry the broken tablets with us along with the whole tablets – just think of the breaking of a glass at a wedding. Shattered shards of glass at the conclusion of a ceremony that has just brought two people together to make them one whole – a family.

Certainly, following Yom Kippur, we try to live up to our best selves, we try to live better and truer, and we will, hopefully, succeed, to varying degrees. But no matter what, we will suffer and we will be disappointed and we will feel sorrow and we will be broken. But the wisdom of the unbroken note of the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur is that we can take our experience of wholeness with us, as a reminder that in the end, we are all connected, we are a reflection of the unity of God. When we say the Shema at the end of Yom Kippur and we proclaim God’s unity, we are proclaiming the original wholenes in the image of which we were created. When we unite our broken shards as a community, when we act throughout the year with hesed, with lovingkindness toward one another, we are mirroring God.

With the final shofar blast this evening, we will be born again into wholeness, knowing that we will break all over again, but that we will not be alone – our brokenness will open us and we will receive what we need. (Rilke writes: “The universe holds you in its grasp and will not let you fall.”) We will return tonight to the earthly realm – to eating and laughing and playing and learning and all of the delights of this life, and with all of that, to sorrow and brokenness. But would we want it any other way?  As Woody Alan famously said, at the conclusion of his film Annie Hall: There's an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of 'em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.’ Well, that's essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly. “

We have prayed fervently during the High Holidays that we will have one more year of all of it – another year to live and love and so, another year to suffer, to dissapoint, to be disappointed, to lose, to grieve, to yearn, to fail, to be failed, to break , to break open, to experience being so broken open that we are whole. Chadeish Yameinu k’kedem we sing, at the end of every Torah service when we are about to close the ark – “renew our days as You have in the past , God.”

We don’t know what the coming year will hold for any of us. And so we pray, Gmar Chatimah tova – may we all be sealed for life in the book of life – may we experience the “beauty and the terror” of our lives in the coming year  knowing that the clear unbroken note of the shofar contains within it the broken notes, and the broken notes contain the seeds of holiness and wholeness; Let us carry with us, at the end of this day, the knowledge that from the vast expanse, just when we feel alone, empty, disheartened, brokenhearted, the Holy will come to meet us. In our brokenness we we we will be made whole, again and again. Chadeish yameinu kekedem.