My technologically challenged mother got a new iPhone this week and I was her first call. “What should I do with my old one?” she asked, which got me thinking.
In our fast-paced world of technological innovation and invention, we know that anything we buy will likely be obsolete within a year or two; replaced by a faster, newer, and sleeker model. So, we junk our devices before they have given all the service they could. Clothing, cars, gadgets, and homes are all traded in for a bigger, better, or just newer version.
When something’s obsolete, when we’ve lost our use for it—we discard it and rarely give it another thought.
We read in the Torah this shabbat that after the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary our ancestors built in the desert was completed, Moses “took the tablets and placed them in the Ark.”
But if we think back, this isn’t the first set of tablets—this is the second set, the new and improved version. Remember Moses broke the first set.
After days atop Sinai, Moses finally begins his descent, returning to his people with God’s Ten Commandments. As he gets closer, he cannot believe his eyes. The people he led to freedom, the very same people who witnessed God’s power while crossing the red sea, have given up on God and turned to idolatry, turned to a golden calf.
In outrage and disbelief, Moses shatters the tablets on the ground. After helping the people repent for their sin, Moses returns to the peak of the mountain for version 2.0. The old, obsolete model is trashed and a new, sleeker model is substituted in its place. Or so we think.
You see, the Torah never mentions the broken tablets again, so we might assume that like our old laptops and iPads they were tossed in an e-waste dumpster somewhere and never given a second thought.
No. The rabbis of the Talmud explain that both sets of tablets, the whole tablets and the broken tablets were kept in the ark alongside each other.
Why? What possible reason could our ancestors have had to hang onto those shattered tablets, much less keep them in the ark right next to the unbroken ones—right next to the most important thing they possess?
The rabbis teach that the ark represents each one of us. Each of us carries broken pieces along with the whole parts of our selves. The broken pieces are a part of who we are, just as much as the unbroken—both tell our story.
If we had only the broken tablets, we would know only a legacy of rebellion, frustration, and fragmentation. We would know only the despair that comes from seeing the pieces and not knowing if—let alone how—they fit together.
But if we had only the whole tablets, we would expect only wholeness and completion—thinking that life demands perfection. We would always see ourselves as failing to measure up to what is expected of us. After all, the commandments, etched on those tablets thousands of years ago, were meant to be kept, not broken.
Both sets of tablets were kept in the ark because we cannot have one without the other—both tell our story.
Hemingway once said that “the world breaks everyone, and afterward [we’re]
strong at the broken places.”
For some those broken places may be loss and setbacks, divorce or sickness, fear, trauma, abuse, or addiction – all of these are in our ark alongside our whole selves—our joy and accomplishments.
And while we sometimes might want to, we can’t just discard those broken pieces, because just like the unbroken pieces, they make us who we are.
So, unlike the latest gadget that will likely be discarded in time, we, like our ancestors millennia ago, take both the broken and the whole and carry them with us as we move forward, knowing that both tell our story; both make us who we are.