I’m walking up and down the streets, hunting for a parking spot. The sun is shining on what would be a gorgeous day if it wasn’t below freezing and windy. Suddenly, I see a gentleman shoveling snow around his Honda. “Hey, can I please help you and have your spot when you leave?” He barely looks at me; ‘don’t talk to strangers’ and all that seems pretty strong here. I repeat my plea another couple of times before I get a partial, ‘no, that’s alright’… What does that mean?? It’s definitely not, and I need that spot. I grab his second shovel. He looks at me surprised. “It’s my last snow storm”, he says with a sigh, “I’m done with this; moving to Florida. You?” “I came from California six months ago”. “Ha ha ha” he chuckles, my poor shoveling style now making sense… “Come back at 3 o’clock. You’ll have the spot”.
I skip through the white piles and slush. Today, I like my neighborhood.
Post Purim Thoughts
Sunday night, plopped in front of my computer absent-mindedly. Purim is just out and Facebook is full of fun pictures: beautiful, creative costumes; colorful baskets of mishlochei manot; and proud, accomplished groups of all women megillah readings. I look at them with some envy. I wish I had one photo too.
Earlier that day, three of us in my car, heading north. No costumes, no plates of food. We’ll be seriously searched, and can bring in nothing short of an ID. The place will try to scare us and impress us with its formidable décor: a tight gate; twirling barbwire all around; guards; big grey buildings and walls. It’s the 3rd year that Yeshivat Maharat goes to NY State’s maximum security women prison for megillah reading. A few ladies are already waiting for us, decorating the little chapel and setting up goodies, provided by the prison chaplain, for an in-house mishlo’ach manot exchange. Some of them hug us warmly; some eye us with curiosity. We sit down to talk.
“Every year, I read chapter 4, and I love Esther there, all strong and inspiring, committing herself to a higher cause and all. But this year, I read chapter 7 too, and there I find Esther, saying, “if we were sold to slavery I would keep quiet, for it’s not worth bothering the king”, and I wonder, really?? For slavery, she’d be quiet? It’s not bad enough for her to say something? To try and make a difference??”
The rays of sun angled into the very quiet little room. For a moment, no one moves. Then one of the prisoners speaks: “Esther had it in her DNA that slavery is not final; that from slavery we can get out. Death? That’s a different thing. That’s the end! But as long as we’re alive, as long as, as they say, ‘our candle is burning’, you know, there is always hope; we have to believe, there is always hope”.
I look at her with glistening eyes. It’s as Purim and everything is “upside down”: I’m in “Max”, learning about hope from someone who’s dealing with life without parole.
Light through Broken Things
Imagine, the dearest, closest person to you in the whole wide world gives you the absolutely most precious handmade gift for which you’ve been waiting for as long as you can remember. You hold it tight, carrying it carefully back home, still feeling so high from your time together. Then suddenly you see something that aggravates you – maybe a group of kids playing a stupid, noisy game, a traffic jam, anything. You’re really, really upset. In your anger you take that precious gift you just received and smash it to smithereens… wait, what??
Indeed, the story of Moses breaking the Tablets after 40 days with G-d, at the sight of the Golden Calf, gets more puzzling the more often one reads it.
At first, it’s sort of fine: the people did something bad; Moses got upset. The Torah teaches us that he’s not G-d; that we can all make mistakes. Great.
But Moses makes other mistakes and has many expressions of his humanity. Why break the Tablets? In fact, how dare he??!! They were not even really his! G-d Herself gave them to him – for the people! Further: those Tablets were not some cheap pottery, made of disposable material. G-d who can do anything, made them! And — He who knows the future, did He not know what will happen? Or did He?? Isn’t He the one who told Moses that the people have sinned! And He knows Moses! He knows he can get upset! Why didn’t He say, ‘hey, put those thongs aside while you’re dealing with them’?! And should you think G-d is not into such details, how about telling Moses to take off his shoes at the Burning Bush??
So…. Did G-d kind of let it happen? Did He maybe think that breaking the Tablets has benefits? that this is what should happen? If so, what can we possibly learn from this?
The Babylonian Talmud in Bava Batra 14:2, quotes / invents a conversation between G-d and Moses, where G-d tells Moses: יישר כוחך ששיברת – loosely translated as – great job for breaking those Tablets! How so?
The first Tablets were made by G-d; handed down by G-d. Alone. We, who teach about humans as partners with G-d in creating and maintaining the world, about the need for halves – like the shekel- to make a whole, aren’t even a bit surprised that no human had any part in this important endeavor?
The rabbis struggled with this. Through many stories they emphasized that even in the most unlikely places, Hashem partners with us. They wanted us to know that a relationship, any relationship, including that with the Divine (and some would say, especially with the Divine) can’t be established on coercion, and on one-sidedness; that the thunder and lightning were impressive, but did not inspire a spirit of voluntarism and participation (in fact, we’re told, “and the people stood afar”). All that “single handedness”, did not work.
The first set was beautiful but it was not ours. We are pained because they are broken, but simultaneously we also know that we had to choose; we had to grow; we had to act, to come willingly, to make, to learn, to be vulnerable, to love. We had to work at it. Therefore, we had to break. Only then Moses, as the leader and representative, could carve a new set: “פסל לך”, says Hashem, “curve for your own sake…”. Really, if we think about it, we don’t need new Tablets at all. We have the whole Torah scroll. We have the old, broken pieces, and if all else fails, maybe someday we can fix those?
Leonard Cohen teaches us in his song:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Sometimes, getting something perfect too soon, is too easy. We don’t earn it, don’t appreciate it, can’t live by it. Even the tablets had to be broken to start again. And from that cracked place, start building something real, where heaven and earth can meet, and where the light can get in.