What do we keep as our most precious reminders? And why does the Torah suggest that we might keep a relic of our greatest sin in our most sacred space? By holding on to the brokenness of the past, we can help remind ourselves to strive for tikkun (repair) in the future.
Holding On to What’s Broken
There’s a challenging exercise I’ve done with both teenagers and adults. I ask the group to write on Post-It notes as many things as they can that are important to them. There’s a happy buzz in the room as people imagine the things they love the most; and after a few minutes, everyone has a couple dozen items in front of them.
Then I ask them to pick the ten most important ones, imagining they had to get rid of the rest. The excitement turns to distress as each person eliminates those things that they deem less than essential. They groan as I then instruct them to pare the list down to five. To their relief, I don’t force them to go any further.
Some people experience this activity as excruciating, but the lesson is always clear: If you had to wander in the desert with only five essential things, what would you pick?
The Torah reports a similar process for the Hebrews in the wilderness. As we read through Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we learn that one item and then another is added to the aron kodesh, the sacred chest that carries the Israelites’ most important treasures. First is the eidut, the “testimony” that God gives to Moses as a reminder of the Revelation on Sinai (Ex. 25:16). Then we find the manna, the miraculous bread that sustained them for forty years (Ex. 16:33-34). After the Korach affair, the staff of Aaron, which miraculously sprouted almond blossoms, is preserved in the ark as a reminder of the primacy of the priesthood (Num. 17:25). And finally, in this week’s Torah portion, we learn that the tablets of the Ten Commandments are kept in the ark as well (Deut. 10:2). The testimony, the manna, Aaron’s staff, and the two tablets – these are the most precious items preserved in the holy ark in the midst of the People of Israel. Each reminds them of God’s care for them—physical, spiritual, and moral—and these symbols stand forever as signs of Judaism’s most important values.
But our tradition adds that there’s one more item in the ark. A close reading of one verse in this week’s Torah portion (Deut. 10:2) suggests that preserved there are not only the Ten Commandments that Moses delivered to the Israelites but also the broken tablets he had shattered during the incident of the Golden Calf. As we read in the Talmud (Berachot 8b, Menachot 99a), לוּחוֹת וְשִׁבְרֵי לוּחוֹת מוּנָּחוֹת בָּאָרוֹן, “The Tablets and the Shards of the Tablets were laid inside the ark.” Indeed, according to Rashi’s commentary (on Bava Batra 14b), the broken tablets were preserved תחת הלוחות, “underneath the Tablets,” suggesting that they served as the Ten Commandments’ foundation stone.
Why are these shards, remnants of a fit of fury and testament to Israel’s greatest sin, preserved in the center of the Hebrews’ camp, upholding the very stones of the Ten Commandments? Why does a reminder of our broken past make the list of Top Five Most Important Symbols of the entire wilderness trek? Rabbi Adina Allen, who grew up in this congregation and is the cofounder of the Jewish Studio Project, suggests that the tablets are preserved to teach us the importance of breaking. All that is whole must be shattered and reformed in order to emerge stronger and longer-lasting than before. She writes:
The first set [of commandments] was inadequate. It didn’t take into account our need for both laws and stories, for both the high principles and the day to day understanding of what it means to really live these ideas out. Our principles need to be revisited again and again, broken open to help us understand new complexities of life. … Keeping the shattered tablets with us is but rather as to remind us of the power and possibility unleashed by the act of shattering. We break the ways in which we have been habituated to see ourselves, to treat one another and to construct our society so that new ways have the space to emerge.
We do not need to bring this past year of living with Covid with us into the future. Our communities and our country have done incalculable damage here and abroad as errors and mistakes have cost thousands of lives and millions of livelihoods. And each of us personally, of course, in these weeks leading up to the Days of Repentance, can no doubt find moments of disruption that we regret. These disappointments and failures threaten to weigh us down for years to come, debilitating yokes on our collective necks.
But as Rabbi Allen reminds us, this year, like every year, can be shattered—indeed, it must be shattered—and then it must also be retained. We are not stuck with the year from which we emerge. We can break what we hated about it, and we can build a new year on top. The challenges of Covid remain with us, even to this day, and we don’t ignore them. We carve a new set of tablets instead, carrying them with us always as we continue our search for the Promised Land.
Roger Kamenetz, best known for his book The Jew in the Lotus, is the author of a short poem called “The Broken Tablet.” In it, Kamenetz expresses the importance of remembering the past, no matter how broken, and carrying with us into the future.
“The Broken Tablet” by Roger Kamenetz
The broken tablets were also carried in an ark.
In so far as they represented everything shattered,
everything lost, they were the law of broken things,
the leaf torn from the stem in a storm, a cheek touched
in fondness once but now the name forgotten.
How they must have rumbled, clattered on the way
even carried so carefully through the waste land,
how they must have rattled around until the pieces
broke into pieces, the edges softened
crumbling, dust collected at the bottom of the ark
ghosts of old letters, old laws. In so far
as a law broken is still remembered
these laws were obeyed. And in so far as memory
preserves the pattern of broken things,
these bits of stone were preserved
through many journeys and ruined days
even, they say, into the promised land.
May we hold our broken yesterdays close to our hearts and build over the shattered remains of the past a stronger tomorrow.
 According to Deut. 31:26, the Sefer Torah (סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה) was kept beside the ark.
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