Rosh Hodesh Tammuz 2020 - Matan - The Sadie Rennert
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Rosh Hodesh Tammuz 2020

Chaya Menasse

Sitting with Broken

“There is nothing more whole than a broken heart”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

As we usher in the new month of Tammuz, we begin a quieter, more reflective period as we move closer to some of the darkest and tragic days for Am Yisrael.

In Massechet Ta’anit, we learn that the beginning of the tragic events that happened in the month of Tammuz started at Har Sinai when Moshe witnesses Bnei Yisrael with the Egel HaZahav and smashes the luchot. Thus, the month of Tammuz starts off with the imagery of brokenness or “shvira”. But what truly is this brokenness about and how should we relate to it? More specifically, how do we connect to this motif in our avodah for the month of Tammuz?

When we read about the destruction of the first luchot, we may feel a stabbing pain at an opportunity lost and greatness shattered.  However, there is a Midrash in Shemot Raba (46:11) that brings the story of a conversation between Moshe and Hashem that happened after the breaking of the luchot, which will deepen our understanding of what shvira truly means.

He (Moshe) started feeling bad that he broke the tablets, G-d told him: Do not feel bad about the first tablets, for they only contained the ten commandments, however in the second tablets I will give you, that they will have Halakha, Midrash and Aggadah, this is what is said: (Job 11): I will tell you hidden wisdom for it shall be double comforting.

In this Midrash, we see that Moshe also feels horror at shattering the luchot. He feels the same pain of the brokenness as we may have as we read the story. In this passage, we can see that not only is Hashem assuring and comforting Moshe about the broken luchot but also teaching him a vital lesson about the essence of shvira. Hashem demonstrates that it is because of this shvira the Torah has actually grown in its depth! Aside from receiving the second pair of luchot, Bnei Yisrael would also be gifted with Halakha, Midrash and Aggadah, all of which, as we know, add so much more depth, color and meaning to the Torah we learn today. This story is critical in our understanding of shvira because it reflects the understanding that it is only through shvira that the deepest of truths are revealed.

This thought is followed by Rabbi Natan of Nemirov, the student of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Rabbi Natan creates a metaphor of the shattered luchot and writes that this shattering is representative of faith itself and is a critical moment in the development of Am Yisrael.

“Through broken tablets, i.e. broken faith, by means of that brokenness itself the faith returns and amends itself, which is the second tablets.”

We may often feel that we need to hold ourselves together, especially when it comes to matters of faith. However, Rabbi Natan is telling us that this shvira is important and necessary for the maturation and deepening of our faith.  This “breaking” itself is holy. So sacred is this shvira that it is in fact awarded a space in the Holy of Holies (Talmud Bava Batra 14b).

This idea is developed further in the writings of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Rav Shagar). In his essay “Luchot V’Shivrei Luchot”, Rav Shagar writes about how the creation process itself needs shvira because “human creative works are never brought forth ex- nihilo, but are always adaptations of elements from earlier works, which is why every such creation can be deconstructed and then reconstructed differently.” (128) Rav Shagar demonstrates that it is from the very broken pieces, that we find the ability to create again.

Even the word brokenness (shever) in Hebrew alludes to its true nature. In the Torah we see that the word shever not only means fragmented or broken but also sustenance and even possibly hope.

As we read the narrative of Yosef in Mitzrayim, we learn that Yosef is called a mashbir, a sustainer and provider for the people at the time of a famine. Yaakov tells his sons that he hears that there is shever in Miztrayim. This causes them to go down to bring back food for their family, and ultimately reunites and reconciles the brothers. Furthermore the story of Yaakov and his sons illustrates the essence of shvira. No family experienced shvira or fragmentation and distance more than Yaakov’s. Rabbi Ami Silver points out that it is these very shattered fragments of Yaakov’s family in parshat Vayeshev that are the birthplaces of the sustenance and hope that come later on in the story.

Moreover, the word for birthing stool in Hebrew (mashbir) also stems from the same root as shvira and through this word we can internalize the fundamental interplay between brokenness and hope. This word demonstrates that one can only be born through brokenness. The place of fragmentation is also the place where new life comes forth. It is only through being in this place of vulnerability and grief as well as a recognition of the fractured splintered moment that true transcendence, growth and hope can emerge.

A poem by John O Donohue illustrates this idea of shvira as the birthplace of hope so poignantly.

“Often a torn ground is ideal for seed

That can take root disappointment deep enough

To yield a harvest that cannot wither:

A deeper light to anoint the eyes 

Passion that opens wings in the heart,

A subtle radiance of countenance:

The soul ready for its true other.” 

Today we are standing at a critical juncture. We are living in a time of personal and global shvira. The truths we thought, the assumptions we made, the realities we held, the fabrics of societies and cultures we have created, all are beginning to shake at their foundations. The old stories we have told are rapidly unravelling.

Pema Chodron writes, “things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point of it is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

We can choose to turn from this shvira- we can frantically try to glue the pieces back together and return to “normal” or we can sit in quiet contemplation of those pieces and what they offer us.  Perhaps it is time we turn to this shvira with courage and embrace it. To sit with it in silence. To feel it…. and in doing so, open ourselves up to a new story.

In this new month, may we develop the strength to truly experience that brokenness that is around and within us and may it be an opening for the dawning of a new story, one of pure joy, light and redemption.

Chaya Menasse

Chaya Menasse

Chaya Menasse is a graduate of the third cohort of the Matan Bellows Educators Institute and she is currently teaching at the Luria Academy in Brooklyn, NY. Chaya has a BA in Education from Stern College and an MA in Jewish Education from the Hebrew University.