We read in this week’s portion that upon the completion of the Tabernacle Moses, commanded by God, took the tablets of the Ten Commandments and placed them into the ark. The verse reads: “Moses took and placed the testimony in the ark.”
I was surprised when I discovered that a Midrash states that the Hebrew word “et” in this sentence teaches us that the remains of the first set of tablets were included. According to Rabbi Meir, those remains, the broken tablets that were smashed as a reaction to the Golden Calf, were placed in the ark along with the second set of tablets.
My initial reaction would have been to retain only the new set of tablets. After all, they were inscribed with the same words that were on the first. Plus, the old set could serve as an embarrassment, a sign of national failure and humiliation. What value would there be in preserving something that would remind the people of their weaknesses, their deficiencies, and their shame? Wouldn’t the broken set serve only to rub their noses in their disgrace?
Why, therefore, should this idea have occurred to Rabbi Meir? What was it that triggered the thoughts within him that these tablets must be preserved in spite of their potential embarrassment?
In answering our questions, we must remember that the tablets were holy objects that were fashioned by God. By the 2nd century, the time of Rabbi Meir, it was universally accepted that any object imbued with sanctity could never truly lose its holiness. A set of tefillin, a mezuzah, or a Torah scroll must be respected and treated in a special manner even after they become unfit for use. The Talmud tells us: “The altar stones which the Greeks had defiled were stored away by the Hasmoneans, placed in a special genizah.”
Our sages, therefore, recognized that despite their disgrace Moses could not indiscriminately dispose of them. These tablets had not been fashioned by mere human hands. They had been created by God Almighty. Their holiness exceeded that of the tefillin, the mezuzah, the Torah scroll and even the altar stones. Rabbi Meir or any of the sages would have been reasonable in wanting us to understand that Moses had to properly care for these tablets.
We then can ask, “Why then has tradition linked the reverence for holy objects to Rabbi Meir alone?” And the answer is found in recognizing the sensitivity of Rabbi Meir to another kind of broken vessel. One of the most intriguing relationships in all of Rabbinic literature is that of Rabbi Meir and his teacher Elisha ben Abuya. Elisha was one of the great sages of his day. He, however, forsook Judaism. As a result, his former associates disassociated themselves from him. But his pupil Meir was the exception. Not only did he continue to treat Elisha with reverence, but he also continued to discuss Torah.
Rabbi Meir’s love and attachment for his teacher were so deep that after Elisha’s death, when he found his grave burning, he spread his cloak over it and said, “If God will not save you, I shall.” In reaction to his contact with Elisha many of Rabbi Meir’s colleagues censured him. Despite all the criticism and censorship, Rabbi Meir stayed devoted to his teacher. An inner strength, an inner conviction seemed to drive him.
Rabbi Meir had faith in the human ability to repent and the power of repentance. The other sages did not accord Elisha the same courtesy. They only saw shame and humiliation. Rabbi Meir saw more. Rabbi Meir had an additional standard. Tradition tells us that the fruit of the hard-covered nut, even though it is made unclean with mud and filth, its contents are not rejected. So too, the scholar even though he has sinned, his Torah is not rejected.
Rabbi Meir was capable of preserving the core, of recognizing and appreciating the Torah that was still within Elisha. He teaches us that the sacred can never truly lose its holiness. Be it the shattered remnants of the first set of tablets or a brilliant sage, another human being who has gone astray and who may be lost, their core must continually be sought. Rabbi Meir wants us to become sensitive to the holy and to the beautiful and he wants us to learn how to recognize and how to find it within the mud and the filth.
All of us are often surrounded by broken vessels in the form of brokenhearted people – people whose lives are shattered by death, by desertion, or by mere failure. Yet many of us thoughtlessly cast these souls away, succumbing to our discomfort, our disgust, or even our impatience. The broken hearted are not often cheerful. Too few of us have the strength to remain loyal at these difficult times.
I am reminded of the tragedy of my own life when my precious 17-year-old sister died at the cruel hands of cancer 40 years ago. My own pain was enormous. The pain of my parents was unbearable. The worst moments came when I realize that my parents had lost more than their only daughter, their little baby. My parents lost most of their previous lives as we watched the uncomfortable community shy away. Not knowing what to say, people chose to avoid.
A simple trip to the supermarket would constantly remind my parents of their loneliness. Former friends would often be seen coming towards them down an aisle. Upon seeing my parents, carts would be turned around making believe they hadn’t noticed them. Too many people left them alone. Too many people thought only of their own embarrassment and discomfort. Too few reached out to say, “We love you.” “We care.” “We’re here whenever you want us.”
We are taught that while a fractured limb disqualified an animal as a sacrifice, a broken spirit in man was always approved by God and we are to always remember that the Almighty has remained loyal to us throughout our centuries of joy and failure, triumph and disaster.
Therefore, as we reflect upon this week’s Torah portion, let us all bear in mind that Moses and our people have never forgotten the broken, as well, but continue to treat them with the reverence due to all whom have once been holy and whom have once been complete. We should remind ourselves and teach our children to add such blessings to this world.