NiSh’ma: Disassembling and ReassemblingBy :
Smashing the tablets on the slopes of Sinai, Moses chooses an imperfect, unpredictable people over inviolable, unchanging tablets and initiates the sacred dynamic of rewriting Torah in every generation.
The Torah warns us against worshipping idols — far more than simply bowing down to a rock. It’s worshipping anything that’s unresponsive or inflexible. Not only God refuses to be limited in this way; we aren’t permitted to stagnate, either, by turning our own lives, or beliefs, into stone.
When ground and continuously broken, stone becomes grains of sand, free to be reconfigured by the winds of life — to connect and assemble as new structures. Eventually, these new structures also surrender to the winds of change.
Even at Sinai, at the foot of the mountain, a rock, the people stand for only a few days. Then they wander and camp in the desert with sand shifting endlessly under their feet for 40 years, seeking holiness from the dynamism and instability that is life.
The shards of the first tablets, along with the second tablets, are brought along on the journey — sacred symbols of the eternal disassembling and reassembling that bind a people, that animate a soul. As we live alongside the new tablets, they remind us that to find and nourish wholeness from within life’s inevitable brokenness is the sacred narrative of human existence.
NiSh’ma: God & People as PartnersBy :
The Torah recounts that as the Israelites wander in the wilderness, they carry not only the second, whole set of tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, but also the first, shattered set. The Apter Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel lived from 1742 to 1825. The Apter, who founded the Mezhbizh/Zinkover Hasidic dynasty, was the great-great-grandfather of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He offers a thought-provoking commentary on this idea.
To the question, “Why do the Israelites bring the broken tablets along with them?” the Apter Rebbe offers a radical reimagining: Moses shatters the first tablets because he knows the Israelites will only accept the Ten Commandments if they take part in the process of fashioning them. My teacher Rabbi Arthur Green explains that the Israelites only accepted the second tablets because they were created in partnership: Moses carving them and God writing them (Exodus 34:1). But the Apter Rebbe still finds God’s partnership with Moses inadequate. He suggests that Moses must give the broken tablets back to the people, and they must put them back together. The community will only abide by the rules when they play a role in creating them.
The Israelites carry both sets of tablets because the second tablets are actually made of the first tablets, reminding us of the power of creating something whole out of what was once broken.
NiSh’ma: brokenness and healingBy :
Moses smashed the first set of tablets when he lost faith in the Israelite people. Upon returning from the mountaintop, he found the people had built a Golden Calf to worship. We all have catastrophic moments when our faith is shaken. For some of us, those moments are more disquieting than for others. At age 16, I was living a normal, healthy, teenage life when I was diagnosed with leukemia. My tablets broke. After treatment and along the way to recovery, I learned that the only way forward was to pick up the shards — not to discard them — and to begin to creatively reconfigure them.
Embarking on such a journey, I found guides in unusual places: dreams, therapists, shamans, and sacred plants such as Ayahuasca and San Pedro. Three years ago, I traveled to Peru, where I ingested these hallucinogens for the first time under the wise care of shamans and other healing practitioners. My experiences with these sacred plants continue to show me where I am broken and how I might become whole.
Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, teaches that during the creation of the world, divinity and holiness were scattered everywhere, and our mission as body-encapsulated spirit beings, is to locate all the broken pieces and bring them back into wholeness. This is the source of the popular notion of tikkun olam.
Why do we preserve the broken tablets in our holy ark? Why is the holiest site of the Jewish people a remnant of a wall of our broken Temple? Why is our holiest day of the year a day of examining our shortcomings? We hold onto brokenness because it is an essential part of gaining wisdom, growing, and, indeed, living.