One year ago today, I sat in a meeting at the Glazer Campus with two dozen or so members of our senior staff, then enjoyed lunch with a longtime congregant at a bistro, and finished the day with six hundred others at a charity gala at the Beverly Hilton, where the conversation at our table briefly turned to a virus that some were starting to get concerned about, as evidenced by the hundred or so folks who had decided not to attend. It seems so unimaginable now! 600 people together?! Indoors in a ballroom?! Unmasked?! Our world has changed. Our lives have changed. We’ve lost so much in the past twelve months; the paradigms through which so many of us saw our lives have been broken by a deadly virus and the necessity to socially distance and isolate from one another.
Dan and Vanessa were meant to get married last May in a long-planned destination wedding. Thinking they were being overly cautious, they rescheduled for last month. Now they’ve rescheduled again but know the reality of hundreds of guests traveling to Hawaii and celebrating together is unlikely anytime soon.
As many of you know, Ashley and I welcomed our son eight months ago—there wasn’t a single guest at the bris. Not one of his grandparents got to meet him in person, much less hold him, for months—at which point it was a momentary, masked, and outdoor affair.
One of the most difficult experiences I’ve had as a rabbi was a final conversation with a dying woman over FaceTime as a nurse held the phone for her because no one, not even a single family member, was allowed in the ICU.
Then there are the funerals and b’nei mitzvah with a handful of us masked and distanced, another handful on Zoom, and so many missing the moment entirely.
We’ve lost so much this year, loved ones, jobs, homes, school, the silent simplicity of an embrace with a friend. So much has been broken in our lives, but with cautious optimism, we can finally see a light at the end of this darkness. But what are we to do with all the brokenness of this year?
As is so often the case, in poetic perfection, the Torah has an answer for us this week. In perhaps one of the most famous stories in the entire Torah, Moses returns to his people with God’s Ten Commandments after days atop Mount Sinai, only to find the people he led to freedom, the very same people who witnessed God’s power while crossing the red sea, worshiping an idol—a golden calf. In outrage and disbelief, Moses shatters the tablets that God just gave him, on the ground.
Mercifully, Moses and our ancestors get a second chance. “Carve out two tablets of stone like the first and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered,” God instructs.
So off Moses goes, up the mountain to try again. The shattered pieces of the first set are swept away—or so we think. You see, the Torah never mentions the broken tablets again, so we might assume that they were tossed in a heap somewhere and never given a second thought. No. Both sets of tablets, the whole and the broken, 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 possessed?
To teach us a truth about ourselves, that each of us is a lot like the ark—each of us carries broken pieces along with the whole parts of ourselves. The broken pieces are a part of who we are, just as much as the unbroken—both tell our story. And the only way forward, the only way into the Promised Land, is to pick up the pieces and move forward.
Hemingway put it this way, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong[er] at the broken places.”
So many families faced with the reality of a b’nei mitzvah unlike any they’d imagined, realized that while it is not what they would ever have chosen—it was beautiful and meaningful nonetheless.
Dan and Vanessa are considering a small wedding ceremony here because—at the end of the day—all that matters is that they’re married.
And of course, I was disappointed not to have family and friends with us to welcome Simon into the world, but I realized that when it’s all said and done, my son in my arms and Ashley and Evelyn by my side, was all I really needed.
Like our ancestors millennia ago who picked up the pieces so they could move forward toward the Promised Land, we too must pick up the pieces of this year—the disappointments and the lessons, the love and the loss, the joy and the sorrow, the celebration and the pain, the whole and the broken—placing them in our ark, carrying them with us as we hope to move forward into a post-pandemic promised land.