From Shattered to Whole – From Lost to Found: Reflections for a New Year
by Rabbi Danielle Upbin
Sometimes it takes a complete stranger to remind us of something that we have been meaning to do for a long time. The calendar can tell us what day of the year it is, but not how we ought to be spending our time. Only we can be the time trackers – sometimes we just need a little help.
A story is told: Once on Rosh Hodsh Elul, the zaddik, Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdichev, was standing at his window. A traveling shoemaker passed by and asked him, “Have you nothing to mend?” In response, the rabbi threw himself on the floor and cried, “woe is me, the Day of Judgment is upon us and I still have not mended myself!”
We are now in the Hebrew month of Elul, a forty-day period of reflection and renewal between the first of Elul and Yom Kippur. The Midrash connects these forty days to the Biblical account describing how Moses went back up the mountain for forty days after the incident of the Golden Calf. After having shattered the first set of Tablets, Moses returned to the mountain top to seek God’s forgiveness. In a poetic response, God gave Moses a second set of tablets – and a second chance.
The shards of the first tablets were surprisingly not lost. They were placed beside the second set in the Mishkan, the Holy Ark that traveled with the Israelites in the desert. Yes, that means, for forty years, the Israelites carried around a heap of broken rocks.
Don’t we all, in some way, carry with us shattered pieces of our past? Those pieces, at least for a time, are necessary to ponder, to remind us of the arduous journey toward wholeness. But the two sets of Tablets and the energy of those forty days of prayer, give us hope. Just as God forgave the Israelites, guiding them for forty years in prosperity, we pray that God will forgive and guide us. Equally as important, just as the Israelites were able to forgive themselves, fostering a new relationship with God and Moses, so can we move on- forgiving ourselves and those who are close to us.
This metaphor of brokenness can help us prepare to enter the High Holidays.
Brokenness is not the ideal state – it is not an end unto itself, it is a means to an end. There is a period in which we sometimes dwell in brokenness – observing the pieces of our lives – but in experiencing brokenness, we learn how to put ourselves back together. The best way to understand how something works, is to take it apart. Mechanics and engineers take apart machines, scientists dissect genes and other physical matter, therapists dissect thoughts and experiences.
Like any Ikea project, constructing a beautiful whole from disparate parts can be a challenge – requiring time, focus and understanding. I have been known to assemble a book shelf or two, only to end up with with an upside down or backwards piece of press board. A perfectionist would cringe. I, however, have learned that “good enough” is sometimes as good as it gets. We all know that life does not come with instructions. But if we are wise to our own truths and trajectories, we can attempt to create manuals of living. We can learn how to build the best version of ourselves, backwards pieces and all.
We also need to know that we don’t have to work alone.
There is another Hassidic story told by Rabbi Hayyim of Sanz in which, a man had been wandering in a forest for several days, not knowing which way was the right way. Suddenly, when he saw another person approach him, his heart was filled with joy because he thought that he would be able to get some directions. When they neared one another, he asked: “Can you tell me which is the way out? I have been wandering in this forest for several days, and by now I am good and lost. The other said to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wondering in this forest for many days – but this I can tell you – do not take the way I have been taking for that will lead you astray. And now let us look for a new way together.”
I love this story because I have been there. Literally. My husband and I were once walking through the woods that backed up to our family’s vacation home in the Catskills. We were certain that we were just a stone’s throw away from Bethel Woods, the site of the historical Woodstock concert. Proverbially, we were trying to “get back to the garden”.
What was supposed to be a short walk became a frightening mis-adventure. I have never felt so hopelessly turned around. In my mind, we were lost beyond belief. Here is where it gets interesting. My husband, who is a seasoned hiker and former forest fire fighter, didn’t feel as lost. The problem was that I couldn’t accept his advice that would lead us home: “Follow the path of the sun”, he said, “kneel down on all fours and follow the path like a deer.” It all seemed so silly and unreasonable at the time, especially when he pointed out a tree that he recognized. But when I allowed myself to trust in his experience and knowledge, I was able to get over my illusion of being hopelessly lost. I simply followed his advice and we eventually did make it back to the house. We never “got back to the garden” that day, but our experience was memorable nonetheless.
During the month of Elul, we are encouraged to take the path, to do the work, to inspect our pieces. But we don’t have to do it alone. Throughout the High Holiday season, we have many tools that can serve as sign posts along our journey. Here are three of my favorites:
- Cheshbon Hanefesh (“an accounting” of the soul) places us in a spiritual “tax season.” This is the time to review and take stock of where we have been and where we are headed, actively assessing how we spend our time, money, and energy. If our findings are favorable, we carry on, grateful for the “refund” that is sure to come. Where we find areas to improve, we take note of where we overspent or underpaid. Our personal accounting provides us with the opportunity to manage the imbalance and set our budget of words, deeds and intentions for the coming year.
- The Shofar blast we hear each morning is our wakeup call to be mindful of our actions and thought patterns. When we hear the shofar, we are reminded to get back on the track – cut through the superficiality – and probe our lives for meaning. The blast of the Shofar can be piercing, shattering, or long. But when the call ceases, we are left with the silence in which to ponder and prioritize.
- Psalm 27, which we recite each morning and night, focuses our attention on faith: “The Lord is my light and my help, whom shall I fear, the lord is the stronghold of my life, whom shall I dread?” We are reminded that trust in God will light the way through our darkest hours. When we turn to God, it shouldn’t be in fear of judgment, rather in faith that that our work will pay off.
The days of Elul are passing quickly, but this year, as in years past, we know how to measure our time. May the rest of the season evoke for us a sense of reflection, forgiveness, purging, and rebuilding. So, when the cobbler comes knocking at our door, asking: “Have you nothing to mend?” We can answer knowingly – “we’re mending, we’re mending” – our project of renewal is well underway.