The Value of Brokenness

Reflections on the Anniversary of Kristallnacht

By Eric Schulmiller

Published November 08, 2010.
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“It did not take long before the first heavy grey stones came tumbling down, and the children of the village amused themselves as they flung stones into the many coloured windows. When the first rays of a cold and pale November sun penetrated the heavy dark clouds, the little synagogue was but a heap of stone, broken glass and smashed-up woodwork.”

This description of the horrible night of November 9, 1938 was written by Eric Lucas, then a resident of the German village of Hoengen who would later escape to Britain on a kindertransport.

On November 9, 1989 — the 51st anniversary of Kristallnacht — Germans experienced a very different type of shattering. In the week that followed, the Berlin wall was reduced to rubble by heavy industrial drills and by tens of thousands of East and West Germans euphorically tearing at the cheap Soviet concrete with hammers, picks and their bare hands. On November 17, 1989, Elie Wiesel wrote an op-ed in the New York Times noting the grim parallel between these two events and cautioning against celebrating the latter on the anniversary of the former. However, perhaps there is something to be gained by acknowledging the shared anniversary of these two acts of German destruction.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Judah bar Ilai taught: “Two arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness — one in which the Torah was kept, and one in which the tablets broken by Moses were kept. The one in which the Torah was kept was placed in the Tent of Meeting; the other, containing the broken tablets, would come and go with the people.”

Thus Rabbi Judah teaches that there is a value in brokenness as well as in wholeness. Our generation has often responded to the rallying cry of tikkun — the need to repair our broken world through social justice, and our broken selves through spiritual practice. But the practice of tikkun is more than simply mending the fissures in our lives and in ourselves. A deeper version can be achieved when we keep the memory of our deepest fractures close at hand — not to wallow in our pain, but to use our intimate knowledge of destruction to shatter the cycles of pain that lead to further injustice and suffering.

There are some who believe that the whole Torah is one long name of God. It rests in the scroll, an unbroken chain of letters on parchment. A reader approaches, using vowels and punctuation to break up the unfathomable, unpronounceable name into words and phrases that comprise the mundane stories of family hardship, longing and redemption which bring the Name into our world. Two versions of the text — one silent and whole, the other a series of fragments waiting to be sung into life — exist side by side in a book created as an aid for chanters. This book is called, fittingly, a tikkun.

Perhaps the words of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen in his song “Anthem” can serve as just that for this darkest of nights: “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Eric Schulmiller is cantor of the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore, in Manhasset, NY. He is also a contributor the Forward blog, The Jew and The Carrot.


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