The Brokenness We All Feel Inside

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778 Sermon
By Rabbi Scott Gellman

There is a Japanese philosophy known as “wabi-sabi,”which embraces the flawed or imperfect. It values marks of wear that arise due to the use of an object.  It treasures the visible cracks and glue that went into the repair. Wabi Sabi promotes keeping an object around even after it has broken. It is an appreciation of the art of seeing the cracks and repairs in a vessel as simply an event in the life of an object. Rather than allowing its service to end at the time of its damage or breakage it continues on to serve a greater purpose.  [1]

Wabi-sabi embraces the broken, it “is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in earthiness, of revering authenticity above all.”[2] We live in a time which adores the opposite of wabi-sabi, the beautifully manicured lawn, only the perfect apples at the grocery store, and the most picture-perfect dish made just for posting on Instagram. The pursuit of perfection is everywhere.

But sometimes you find yourself sitting at a coffee shop that has tables made of reclaimed wood. You first notice when you place your cup down. Your coffee cup almost tips over due of the many crevasses in the wood. This calls your attention to the beauty of the wood.  Its imperfections, its ridges and valleys, and its history. This beautiful old piece of wood serves the honor of holding your coffee now, but these characteristics lead you to wonder: what did it see in its previous life? These rough edges and stains remind you of the journey this piece of wood has taken. Who’s roof did this beam once hold up? What was made in the factory that this wood served as flooring? What happened in the park where this was once a bench? If this piece of wood could talk, what stories from its previous life would it tell us? What stories can it tell from its previous life?

But then I think about some things in my life that are imperfect and how they bring such joy and such wonderful memories to mind. The scratch on my phone from when I dropped it in front of my Rabbinical school in New York City, the deep scuff on my dress shoe that I was wearing at camp because I was there to officiate my best friend’s wedding. “[Or] like when your water heater breaks [leaving you with no water] the night before…your first high holy day as a rabbi,”[3]

Earlier this summer, I spoke from this bima about the importance of my family ring. It’s meaning cannot be extricated from the ring… and the ring cannot physically be extricated from my finger. You see, during my first year of Rabbinical school in Jerusalem, I was playing basketball with my classmates and I jammed my finger. Apparently it was worse than I thought, because a callus was formed to protect the apparently broken knuckle. And now, my knuckle is actually too large for the ring to be removed.  This imperfection reminds me of two very special things. First is that my Gellman Ring is literally stuck on me and like my name, my family name, is mine forever as well. It remains with me, according to the honor that I have given it. This also reminds me of my year in Israel, of the friends and colleagues with whom  I experienced the joys and tribulations of Rabbinical school. In fact, it reminds me of something even more important: Scott, you are NOT good at basketball!

We all carry with us memories of imperfections, disappointments, failings and regrets. We are human. Part of the human condition is seeing our failures and wishing to be better. Ma’ayan and I recently adopted a rescue dog who we named Shmooli. He is just three and a half months old now. Despite all of our hard work and the weekly puppy training classes, Shmooli makes mistakes. He occasionally chews on our shoes, does not come immediately after we call him, and sometimes he forgets to signal that he needs to go out and has an accident in the apartment. Sometimes, rarely(!), he is not perfect. But, I don’t believe he even knows that he could be. Thats where Shmooli has an advantage. We perseverate on our failings. We remember every time we could have done better and we fault ourselves for it. Shmooli just wants another belly rub.

Acknowledging and remembering our mistakes and our failings is a critical part of what it means to be human and to be Jewish. Tonight, at sundown, marks the start of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and the ending of the month of Elul. Elul is “a time for study and personal reflection on our actions of the past year. It is also a time when we seek forgiveness from those we have wronged or with whom we otherwise have “missed the mark” in our interactions and behaviors.”[4] In order to repent, we must reflect on our past year. We take a spiritual accounting of every time that we wronged someone we love, every time we hurt someone whether knowingly or not or not.

How great life would be if we could just forget about every single time that we did not live up to the expectations we hold for ourselves. How easy would life be if we never contemplated our imperfections. We would live life free of regret, free of any negative feeling about ourselves or our actions. We would feel like we were perfect. But living a Jewish life means being reminded that we are, in fact, not perfect. We all have flaws, we all make mistakes, we all have areas of our lives which we could, and should improve. We are not perfect, and so we must spend time contemplating these areas of imperfection. We are not perfect.

To be human is to be imperfect. I don’t think God want us to be perfect. My college studies on Philosophy steer me to using logic statements: If we were made in the image of God AND we were supposed to be perfect, then God would have made us perfect, but we are not.

God doesn’t need us to be perfect. God needs us to be human. Fully, profoundly, flawed, and human.

When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai, carrying the tablets of the Ten Commandments he encountered his people celebrating a failure of epic proportion. Not even 40 days removed from their collective experience of God, the Israelites built themselves a Golden Calf, and in full throated celebration proclaimed their fidelity to the God they have fashioned for themselves. And it breaks Moses’ heart. In his broken-heartedness, Moses shatters the tablets and seeks to restore order among the people. But what happens next is what is most extraordinary. Moses, with his broken heart, is called back to the summit of Mount Sinai, and fashions a second set of tablets.

When he descends with this second set of tablets, he declares words we echo throughout the celebration of these High Holy Days: Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum V’Chanun, Erech Apayim, V’Rav Chesed V’Emet – Adonai, Adonai, a God of compassion and graciousness, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6)” The midrash teaches that Moses took his new tablets and placed them into the holy ark, right next to the broken tablets. What is most holy to God, and to us, is both perfection and brokenness.[5]

We all go about our days carrying both sets of tablets. We carry the wholeness and the brokenness. We learn to hold this complex relationship within ourselves. But do we embrace it? What would happen if we embraced the philosophy of Wabi Sabi and were actually proud of our brokenness. Proud of our personal history, proud of both when we felt accomplished and when we have felt disappointed in ourselves. If we have learned from these tough moments, then we should be proud. We are better than we were before. (this sentence is a little unclear). We have taken our brokenness and used it to make our strengths even stronger.

The author Jonathan Safran Foer was recently interviewed on the NPR program Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She asks Foer about the title of his most recent book: Here I am. Foer explains to her audience that ‘here I am’ in Hebrew is, of course, ’hineini’. We find our biblical ancestors using this important phrase many times throughout Torah, but most poignantly when Abraham answers God when he is called upon to sacrifice his son Isaac. Hineini holds an important role throughout Jewish consciousness. It is most often used as a concept to say here I am, I am prepared. I am ready to respond to the call.

Jonathan Safran Foer puts a spin on this famous phrase. He tells about another interview that Terry Gross did which happened to be Maurice Sendak’s last interview before his death. Sendak ended his interview by repeating three times “live your life, live your life, live your life.” Foer took from this an alternate meaning to Hineini. He said:
What I found so resonant about it was not that he was saying live life, not that he was saying, you know, [Carpe Diem,] seize the day, but [rather] live your life. And that, to me, is what “Here I Am” means… [it is] wrestling with, how not simply to move through days, but to move through days as oneself, as an integrated person.[6]

We live every day as complex people holding both of those sets of tablets, the broken and the whole. For Foer, Hineini means working to embrace the integration of our brokenness and our wholeness. We live our own lives. All of it, the good and the bad. And we do our best. We live with the broken phone screens, the broken bones, and the broken hearts. We live with our mistakes, our rough edges, our faults. We have beauty and wholeness in our lives which accompanies the broken.

The art of life is moving through the day, as the Israelites did, carrying both of these and integrating both into ourselves in a sincere/genuine way.

It is in this season, of Elul and now the High Holy Days, that we truly acknowledge both parts as we strive to be better human beings with each new day and each new year.

May this be a year for each of us, of being alright with our brokenness as it is our brokenness which reinforces and strengthens our wholeness.

[1] Reaching for Wholeness – Sermon by Rabbi Linda Steigman
[3] Justin Levy, September 20th 2017
[5] As told by Rabbi Dan Levin in his Rosh HaShanah 5776 Sermon