Parashat Ki Tissa: Building up from the brokenness

Parashat Ki Tissa: Building up from the brokenness

Glen Rock Jewish Center, Conservative

Plenty of things feel broken these days. But what are we doing about it?

When I break a glass or shatter a vase, I don’t get upset. It’s a nuisance, for sure, but I just clean it up. When I break an egg yolk in my frying pan and I really wanted an over-easy egg, I just crack another egg in the pan – but not without first laughing.

But when I’m lacking in patience or reach a breaking point, that’s a different story. We all know what happens more frequently than we care to admit in that circumstance, right?

We let it all out – often in ways that are not so productive. We say things we don’t mean. We might raise our voices a little too much. We may find ourselves blaming others when we wish we could better control our own behavior. Sometimes we even resort to acting in childish ways. And then afterwards, it sinks in. The guilt. Why did we just say that? What in the world were we thinking that made us do that? We beat ourselves up and promise ourselves that we won’t do that again. Until we do. Rinse and repeat.

It is because we are human that we can understand why Moses had a fit of anger, too. After witnessing the molten calf, Moses throws the tablets from his hands, shattering them on the ground. Certainly, our tradition discourages us from acting out of rage. And yet, we may ask ourselves: Did Moses do the right thing for himself, perhaps letting off steam and not holding back? Was this a type of emotional catharsis? Did Moses do the right thing for the Israelites by letting them know that what they did was unacceptable? Did he have any regrets? And what did God think about all of this?

After Moses breaks the tablets, God tells him: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, asher shi’barta, which you shattered (Exodus 34:1).

Seemingly, from this passage, God responds to Moses in the same way I respond to a broken egg yolk: “No problem; let’s just crack another egg in the pan. Let’s just make another set of tablets.”

But there’s a little more to that verse. According to Reish Lakish’s comment in the Talmud (Shabbat 87a), this phrase, asher shi’barta (“which you shattered”) refers to the phrase “yasher koach,” the same phrase we say to someone after they take an aliyah, for example. It means: “May your strength be true because you broke the tablets.”

Put simply, when something is broken, when we express anger, when our world seems a bit shattered, we have the opportunity to grow.

The world is going to continue breaking and feeling shattered. There will always be Moseses that break the tablets of our world after others perform idolatry. We see this happening in politics, throughout the pandemic, within our families, our schools, our shuls. But if God doesn’t seem bothered by Moses breaking the tablets than why do we get hung up on this part? We get stuck on the pain, the suffering, the conflicts and lose sight of how we can re-make another set of tablets.

Instead, what God wants us to do is build another set of tablets – not just a carbon copy, but rather one that is simply like the first set. The second set of tablets can’t be identical to the first set because after something is shattered to pieces, we are new people and bring new ideas, concerns and feelings to the table when building the second set.

When we raise a second child, we come to the table with prior experience about how to raise children generally, even while knowing that the second child may have different needs.

When we retake an exam, we have some idea of what is expected of us because we learned from our mistakes on the first exam.

When we enter a second marriage, we come to this new relationship after doing the internal work of self-reflection and personal growth.

These second chances are not only occasions to start with a clean slate. That would be the easy way out. Instead, they are opportunities to do the hard work of self-reflection and self-improvement.

According to a midrash (Shemot Rabbah 46:1), God told Moses that he should not feel bad about having broken the first set of tablets. After all, they only contained the Ten Commandments. However, the second set would also contain halacha (laws), midrash (interpretation), and agadah (parables). Take two was really the “new and improved” version, with great depth and breadth.

We typically do not proactively welcome brokenness to our world, nor do we deserve it.

But once it’s there, we’ve got a choice to make.

From the brokenness in our world and from the shattered pieces of our hearts, here’s to building ourselves up into the newer, fuller, and more joyous person we are meant to be.

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