Nothing More Whole Than a Broken Heart

This is a guest post by Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, MN, and the first in TC Jewfolk’s series of excerpts from local High Holiday Divrei Torah.
The creation narrative of Rosh Hashanah is not the first chapter of Genesis which asks us to see the world as Tov, or even that of Genesis 2 that wants us to be held in judgment over our bad choices. This morning I want to draw upon a different narrative, one that I believe is more fitting for our time.
It is a telling more about the interplay between wholeness and brokenness. It is the embodiment of what the Kotsker rebbe taught long ago Eyn davar shalem yoter malev shavur – there is nothing more whole than a broken heart. The meaning of our Mahzor Lev Shalem is not only to see the wholeness of heart with which we pray – but to hear in this name the truth and to discover what is whole in the midst of Shvirah the brokenness that surrounds us: the light that is present in even the darkest places.
In order to do so, let me share with you the creation account of The Ari, Yitzhak Luria. It is the narrative of creation which accompanies us on our journey each and every year since its first telling some 5 centuries ago.
In 1492, Spanish Jewry was exiled. Some few years later the Jews of Portugal would meet a similar fate. A Jewish world was shattered. Jewish teachers turned again to mysticism to explain that which could not be understood rationally, to offer an approach to life and faith amidst the hopelessness.
Isaac Luria, writing in Safed in the first half of the 16th century offered an alternative understanding of the creation. It is the story of a God who failed in the first attempt to create the world. God tried to enter the vessels of creation, but the vessels could not contain the awesome Divine light. They shattered allowing evil and imperfection into the world. God then took these broken pieces and used them to recreate the world. While broken, each part contains a spark of the Divine. The purpose of human history is tikkun, fixing the broken vessels. That is, by releasing the Divine Light from that brokenness. By engaging that which is broken and searching for the light inside, the world can be healed.
What a bold and different narrative for the creation of the world Isaac Luria has left us with.
One that acknowledges the world as it is today without apology and teaches that the world has in some form or another been broken as it were from the moment of the first creative act itself.
In Luria’s understanding of creation, our world is filled with contradictions – God is present but must withdraw to begin creation; vessels purposely created to contain the divine light are shattered by the lights force; creation and chaos coexist, wholeness and brokenness walk hand in hand. This account of creation contains a radical concept.
God depends on you and me – on human action – to repair that which was broken as a result of the divine creative act in the first place. This is the notion of tikkun olam in its pristine sense.
For in Luria’s account of the creation story we human beings are called upon to do the work of the healing of the brokenness of our own world. In this telling of the creation our acts not only extend vertically towards the heaven but horizontally towards one another and internally into the reaches of our own soul.
There is tikkun Olam, working towards achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians; fighting hard for the rights of abused workers in kosher meat plants; serving the hungry and sheltering the homeless; fighting for religious freedom and religious sensitivity in lower Manhattan. But that is only a part of the truth. There is also tikkun atzmi calling on us to address each personal broken piece and to do the best we can to repair it, to seek out the light in that which was shattered, the good in the difficult, to find the Beracha in the Shevarim! There cannot be tikkun olam without proper attention to tikkun atzmi.
Imagine now the power of an entire community engaged in such work and effect that would have!
For what Luria taught 500 years ago and which has become the creation narrative which we must grab onto is that wholeness and brokenness, love and faith, joy and sadness are born of the same grit and insecurity of life. We always will yearn for that moment, for that place, for that reassurance that we will banish turbulence – anxiety – anguish – brokenness – uncertainty- and insecurity that moment itself of wholeness.
But the paradox of these days, the truth that Luria has left us with is this: nothing is as whole as a broken heart.
The more we love the more we risk being hurt; the greater the intimacy we share the more vulnerable we become. We may try to convince ourselves that we will never experience brokenness, that we will never experience despair that these days of Rosh Hashana are simply about capturing the tov meod of Genesis 1. It isn’t the case. The more we are able to embrace these polarities, celebrate them and accept them as the truth of our lives, the more we really come to understand the meaning of tikkun, the mystical tradition of mending the world in which we live.
For the question is not if there is brokenness – the question we are to ask is this: How do we address that brokenness?

[Eds note: Rabbi Allen has started the conversation. Now it’s your turn. Lend your thoughts in the comments. Do you agree/disagree that there is “nothing as whole as a broken heart?”]

(Photo: Dr. Deb’s Broken Heart)