Broken Notes

Artwork by Victor Raphael
Artwork by Victor Raphael

Tekiah: We are whole.

Shevarim: We are broken.

T’ruah: We are completely shattered.

Tekiah g’dolah: We are more whole than before.

The sequence of shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah takes us from wholeness (the unwavering sound of the tekiah) to the beginnings of vulnerability (the three sounds of shevarim) to the utter despair of t’ruah (with its nine staccato notes) to a wholeness more complete than before (the long call of tekiah g’dolah). And then the process begins again. In fact, over the course of the full Rosh Hashanah prayer service, we hear 100 shofar blasts that carry us over and over through these stages of wholeness and brokenness.

The shofar reveals a secret: Wholeness and brokenness cannot be separated from one another. As we do a cheshbon nefesh — a personal accounting — and delve deeper into ourselves, we may find cracks that we never before noticed. Only a sincere encounter with this brokenness will allow us to put ourselves back together again, more whole than before.

This lesson, that wholeness comes through shattering, also surfaces in the traditional view that the shards of the original tablets remain in the ark and travel with the Jewish people through the wilderness:

“The ark of the covenant of God went before them.” (Numbers 10:33) This ark that went with them in the camp contained the shards of the tablets, luchot…What is this like? Like a viceroy who would go out before his troops and prepare a place for them to stay. Similarly, the divine presence would precede Israel and prepare them a place to stay.” (Sifrei Bamidbar B’halot’kha 82)

Despite being shattered, and despite their association with the sin of the Golden Calf, the shards of the tablets retain their divinity — indeed, perhaps more divinity than the new, whole tablets. Rabbi Ezekiel ben Judah Landau (1733-1793, Poland/Bohemia) suggests, “The shards of the tablets contained extra sanctity, for they were the direct handiwork of God.” (Noda B’Yehuda Orach Chayim 9) While rabbinic sources disagree about where the shards of the first tablets lay, all agree that the shards remained in a sacred space and retained the power to protect the people in times of danger.

Experiencing brokenness may give us greater access to God. In Psalms we learn, “God is close to the brokenhearted.” (34:19) And Rabbi Abba Bar Yudah (a fourth-century sage) writes that while an “animal is unfit if it is maimed or broken, …a person[’s] broken and contrite heart is considered kosher.” (_Midrash Vayikra Rabba_h 96:7) This supports the statement in Psalms (51:19), “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.” Rabbi Alexandri (a third-century sage) said, “It is considered shameful for an ordinary person to use broken vessels. But all of the Holy Blessed One’s vessels are broken, as it says, ‘God is close to the brokenhearted.’” Or, as the Hasidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859) said, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” Our brokenness makes us more, not less, able to access God. It’s when we dismantle our armor and allow ourselves to be vulnerable that we can open ourselves to feel raw emotion, to call out for help, and to make ourselves available for transformation.

It is not only human beings who are broken. According to sixteenth-century Lurianic Kabbalah (mysticism), the world as we know it comes to be when the powerful divine emanation shatters the vessels meant to contain it. Human beings are charged with tikkun, repair, of this broken world through ritual acts and intentions. While contemporary Jews often speak of tikkun olam (repairing the world) as a goal, Kabbalah teaches that human beings as we know them come to exist only as a result of the initial shattering of the divine vessels — and they may or may not have a place in a fully repaired world.

To be human, then, is to encounter brokenness and to live in a broken world. Though we try to fix our world and ourselves, we know that some brokenness may be necessary — and may even bring us closer to the divine.


Jill Jacobs

Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes rabbis, cantors, and their communities to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories.

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