There Is Nothing So Whole As a Broken Heart

images1.jpgI’ve been hunkering down these past two weeks working on my High Holiday sermons, so I haven’t had too much time/energy for the blog, alas. In the spirit of the season, however, I thought it might be appropriate to pull one of my older sermons out of the ol’ data base.

Here’s a Kol Nidre sermon from a few years back in which I somehow managed to combine the first two chapters of Genesis, the Kotzker Rebbe, and the children’s book, “Eggbert, The Slightly Cracked Egg.” If this seems at all intriguing to you, click below:

Most people don’t realize it, but there are actually two completely different creation stories in the book of Genesis. Though we tend to conflate them together in our imagination, Genesis, chapter one and Genesis chapter two offer separate accounts of how the world came to be. And the really remarkable thing is that the Torah makes no bones about it. After we finish with the first creation story, we just rewind right back to the beginning, version two. No segue, no explanation. The Torah just starts over and offers us a totally different version.

Version One is the famous seven days of creation. God creates a neat and orderly world out of dark watery chaos: creating light and separating it from darkness on the first day, separating waters above from waters below on the second day, sea and land plants and vegetation on the third, the great luminaries of the skies on the fourth, animals of the water and air on the fifth day, and finally, earth animals, man and woman on the sixth. God tells man and woman to have dominion over this new world, to be fertile, and to fill the earth with the human race. And then, of course, God rests on the seventh day, sanctifies it, and calls it Shabbat. In Version One, God is an all-powerful, omnipotent, being, totally in control, from day one. The world God creates is perfection itself: there is an exquisite beauty, order and symmetry to God’s plan – and to the final product itself. By the end of the story, we sense a world in perfect balance – a universe in which everything is as it should be.

Creation Story, Version Two is completely different from Version One. In the second story, God seems to be making it up as God goes along. The story begins with a sort of untended world already in existence. God creates a man out of the earth, puts him in the Garden of Eden, and tells him to tend it. God determines that it is not good for the man to be alone, so God forms a woman out of his rib to be his helper. You all know the rest of the story – things don’t go so well for Adam and Eve in the garden. They eat from the Tree of Knowledge, their eyes are opened, they suffer the consequences, and are eventually banished from the garden forever.

Unlike Creation, Version One, Creation, Version Two does not end happily. It does not end with everything as it should be. On the contrary, it ends messily. It ends with Adam and Eve learning about their mortality – that their life will sometimes entail pain. That nothing necessarily comes easily. That happy endings, the kind described in Version One, are not guaranteed in life.

Why the two versions side by side? I don’t know, maybe some ancient editorial board couldn’t decide between the two and simply decided to publish them both and let the readers sort it all out. Literary scholars do indeed point out that these are clearly different stories that come from different literary traditions, written by different authors at different times. This is actually not that unusual in the Torah. There are many places where we find the existence of variant stories, but it never happens quite as dramatically as is it does in the first two chapters of Genesis. But while we may never truly know how or why both of these stories made the final cut, I have always sort of liked the fact that they both just sit there, side by side. It creates a wonderful kind of creative tension. It invites us to explore the space between them, the fascinating margin between these two radically different visions of our world.

For me, the essential difference between the two stories is the difference between the ideal and the actual; the dream and the reality. Version One presents us with the world as we wish it was. The world of our dreams. The world of nature: a predictable, pristine world that makes sense purely on its own terms. Version Two presents us with the world as it is. And it is, needless to say, a much more complicated world than Version One. It describes a world that contains confusion and deception, a world of unequal power dynamics and gender politics, a world of potential pain and hurt.

Creation, Version Two is not an easy story to read or to hear. And contrary to our typical associations with Adam and Eve, it’s certainly not a story for children – at least not in its original form. On one level, we might say it’s an almost brutal allegory about the loss of innocence, about growing up, about how we all learn that the real world is not necessarily Eden. Version Two comes to teach us that the real world, on some level, is not quite completed, not yet fully created. It is still fragmented and broken in certain places.

It’s not that Adam and Eve are punished for eating from the Tree of Knowledge. As it says in the text, after they eat of the fruit, “their eyes were opened.” That means the world, their world, was always a difficult, painful place. The only difference was that they now had knowledge of this fact. When God sends them out of Eden, it’s not as punishment for eating a fruit so much as it is a necessary consequence of this new knowledge. God says to Adam and Eve, as any parent would a child “Fine, you desire to learn more, I understand this. But it won’t be always be easy to learn what it means to grow up. What it means to be truly human. You will learn, sometimes the hard way, that there will be pain and struggle for both of you. You will learn what I already know. Our world is not a perfect place.”

There is yet another famous Jewish creation myth – one that comes from our mystical tradition. Interestingly enough, it also ends messily, with divine sparks of creation scattered throughout the shards of our broken universe. As a result of this primordial mishap, humanity is bidden to gather these sparks and effect a kind of cosmic repair throughout our world. Through holy action we are to help God do what God is unable to do on God’s own – to perform Tikkun Olam: the repair of the world.

Today, of course, Tikkun Olam is one of our favorite Jewish expressions. We use it as a euphemism for any good deed, any act of social justice, any time we do something to make the world a better place. The central assumption of this term, of course, is that we live in a world that is broken and need of repair. But I believe there is also an inner existential meaning to Tikkun Olam. It doesn’t only refer to the world around us. It also refers to the world within – the broken places of our own lives.

Some might take great exception to these kinds of creation stories. What self-respecting creation myth would assert that the world, that our lives, are essentially broken? Isn’t the point of religion to inspire us with visions of order, and truth and justice? What is the point of teaching us that broken-ness, not wholeness, seems to be our collective inheritance? The truth is, of course, that if Genesis One was our only creation story, we’d see through it immediately. We all know the world doesn’t work that way. Even a child will tell you that life is not fair.

One of my favorite children’s books is called “Eggbert the Slightly Cracked Egg,” by Tom Ross. It’s the story of an egg, Eggbert, who loves to paint pictures in his home in the fridge. One day, however, the other foods discover that Eggbert is slightly cracked, and he is eventually banished from the refrigerator. In desperation, Eggbert paints himself in a number of different ways so that no one will notice his crack, but of course, nothing works.

As he sits weeping and broken on the ground, he notices the sun breaking through a crack in the clouds. He then notices that the world is actually full of wonderful cracks – and eventually he decides to travel the world and paint pictures of all the wonderful cracked places – the Grand Canyon, volcanoes, the Liberty Bell, and so on. The book ends with the line, “To this day Eggbert does not regret being cracked. In fact, he is even a little proud of it.”

I’m not sure why I love this book so much – enough that I actually thought to cite it in a Yom Kippur sermon. Perhaps it’s because of the book’s basic existential premise. Like Eggbert, we are all, in a sense, slightly broken in one way or another. And like Eggbert, I think we naturally grieve over this aspect of our basic humanity. We assume that as a result of our broken-ness, we will never fit into the world around us. And so, these broken places often become sources of shame. We try with all of our might to deny them, to pretend that we are more whole than we actually are, in the hopes of being like everything, like everyone else.

In the end, though, Eggbert learns this ironic truth: that the path to wholeness comes not from overcoming, but embracing his broken-ness. Because on some level, when we greet the difficult, painful parts of life with openness, we are embracing our essential humanity. In the words of the great Hasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”

Now I’m sure many of you might be thinking, “What kind of person, what kind of loon, what kind of crazy masochist, would suggest such a thing?” Nonetheless, I do believe there is a great spiritual truth to the Kotzker’s teaching. Granted, broken-ness, pain and loss are not things we would wish on ourselves, nor are they particularly pleasant to experience. Nevertheless, none of us are immune. Sooner or later those jagged edges of our broken world will enter our lives. Sooner or later we all have it coming. Though we prefer to cling to our illusions of immunity, the real question is not if, but how.

How will we greet the broken-ness that will inevitably enter our lives? By denying it? By ignoring it? By fighting against it? Or by embracing our pain and our struggle as part of a larger truth? That our broken-ness, painful and difficult though it is, is a central aspect of what makes us human. I’ve often thought that the Kotzer Rebbe’s teaching, in it’s way, has much in common with the Four Noble Truths of Zen Buddhism: that suffering is essential to our world – and that the pathway out is by embracing our suffering and letting go of our desires.

In my work as a rabbi, I have found that those who have experienced their share of pain and suffering in their lives are generally the ones who profess a deeper sense of relationship to the Divine. You might think it would be the opposite: that personal tragedy would tend to drive people away from rather than toward God. But in fact, I believe that we tend to find God more often in the lowest depths rather than the highest heights. Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev, goes the famous line from the Psalms, “God is close to the brokenhearted.” Perhaps it is when our hearts are broken that we have the potential to be the most spiritually open – to be more sensitive and mindful of the blessings in our lives, to be more empathetic to the suffering of others.

Jewishly speaking, there is no time in which we are asked to be more spiritually open than right now. On the High Holidays, our tradition bids us to look unflinchingly into the reality of our broken-ness that we might eventually find our way toward wholeness. Perhaps the central image of the High Holidays, the open gates of heaven, is just a mirror image of our own broken hearts. And perhaps it is when the gates finally close at Neilah that we ultimately experience this one profound truth: there is nothing so whole as a broken heart.

Max S. Gerber is a photo-journalist who created a photo essay documenting the lives of ten pediatric heart patients. A recent issue of Doubletake magazine published some of these remarkable photographs along with his own introduction. This is what he writes:

At some point in their lives, most people become brokenhearted. Me, I started out that way. I was born three months premature with a heart rate a little more than a half of what it should’ve been. I got my first pacemaker when I was eight years old. I didn’t look sick, but I couldn’t ignore my health.

Every day, I saw other kids do things that I would never have occurred to me. I was something that all my friends were not. I watched my brother climb the trees in our backyard, but I never thought to do it myself. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t pedal fast enough. I didn’t take my shirt off. I worried my sister, made teachers nervous, and elicited sympathy from airport security guards. I haven’t been through a metal detector in twenty years.

I watched my friends grow up and figure out intellectually something that I had always known instinctively: we are not invulnerable; we are not here very long. Sooner or later we have to face this truth and make peace with it.

I came to my life still as an anomaly. I had not met anyone my own age or younger with a significant heart problem and I wanted to know if there really was something to be gained from being born with a broken heart.

I have been following ten kids now for the better part of two years. I’ve sometimes been surprised at how some people view these pictures as sad or tragic. It hardly seems that way to us. We’ve been brokenhearted and put back together. We’ve got hearts that are stronger for it.

On Kol Nidre, we offer our most fervent of vows, yet knowing that they may yet be broken in the year to come. We face the year with openness and hope, knowing that we may yet encounter some breaks along the way. May we embrace it all. May we face these broken lives, may we face this broken world of ours together. And in the end, may we find that our hearts are stronger for it.


5 thoughts on “There Is Nothing So Whole As a Broken Heart

  1. ALH

    A friend forwarded me this link, and I’m grateful she did. I am not Jewish, nor very religious, but this sermon is beautiful and very moving. Thank you.

  2. Soleil

    Thank you so much for this – I really needed to read this tonight. This passage struck me in as I read our Machzor the other week, and I’m glad that I found your exploration of it.


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