Housing God's Presence in our Wholeness and in our Brokenness
by admin / BSTN
The entirety of Parashat Terumah offers instructions as to how to build the mishkan, God’s dwelling place among the Israelites as they wander through the desert. The mishkan is a massive structure—yet an entirely portable one—that can be broken down and carried with the Israelites along their journey, only to be rebuilt at each new encampment. And, at the very heart of the mishkan, this Divine dwelling place, is the ark, placed within the center of the holy of holies.
Our text tells us that the tablets containing God’s ten utterances were placed within this ark, but it’s not enough to stop there. Midrash elaborates on this notion to say that it wasn’t only the two whole tablets that were housed in the ark. Rather, the broken pieces from the first tablets were also placed within it.
As a refresher, tradition tells us that after descending Mount Sinai for the first time, Moshe looked upon the Israelites who had just made an idol of gold with such rage that he threw the stone tablets to the ground, shattering them completely. He would return up the mountain again and later bring a second set of stone tablets that were preserved in their completeness.
Our midrash states that as the Israelites were packing to leave their camp at the base of Sinai, they gathered not only those whole tablets, but they were also careful to salvage every piece of the broken ones, placing them within the ark as well. They would physically and spiritually carry the weight of their brokenness with them, perhaps as a way to honor that it is not only in our wholeness where the Divine dwells, but it is also in the shattered pieces of ourselves that holiness rests.
Now, there are two different ideas of what happened with these broken tablets. And the notion that the whole and broken tablets were placed in the ark together is the first. However, there is a second tradition that holds there were two separate arks—one for each set of tablets.
The whole tablets were placed in the ark that remained within the mishkan’s holy of holies, while the broken pieces of the first tablets were placed in a different ark—a kind of ultra-portable one that they would carry with them into battle.
It strikes me as a bit surprising that the tablets they would carry with them into battle were the broken ones. It seems like the brokenness of these tablets would be a reminder of the Israelite’s fragility—something I would guess one need not be reminded when walking into battle.
Perhaps the broken tablets aren’t about human fragility, but rather they are a physical manifestation of the brokenness that led to the battle in the first place. By the time we are doing battle with one another, we are already broken—something about us, about humanity, about the sacred connection between God’s creation has failed, leaving a part of ourselves shattered. It is this brokenness that allows us to fight in the first place.
But, I wonder if that’s only part of the story. Maybe it is about human fragility, and that the brokenness that leads us to fight in battle against one another could somehow be harnessed to fight against something else, to fight for something else.
I don’t know about you, but two years of a global pandemic, two years of the trauma its caused, two years of the social isolation, unreliable childcare, spiritual stress, and constant risk-assessment, and two years without an end or “normal” in sight, has left me feeling more than a bit broken. Many days, I’m feeling defeated, sad, angry, exhausted, broken-hearted, and somedays, even spiritually shattered. (Yes, even rabbis can feel all these things)
But I do get a sense of chizuk—strength—when I think of the tablets.
Maybe, like the first story of the tablets, we’re meant to carry this broken feeling with us, recognizing that it—along with those most whole parts of ourselves—are to be honored. That simply being with this brokenness in an honest way is enough. That to acknowledge the pain of this moment, the stress and imperfection of this time, and the sorrow that oozes from its cracks, is all we can do in an instance like this.
And also perhaps, like the second story of the tablets, we’re meant to see our brokenness as a tool we carry with us into the fight. It can be a source not just of numbing ourselves to the overwhelm of the world, but to empathizing with it—to feeling it most fully.
Personally, I’m finding that my patience and my polish are wearing thin—perhaps even evidence by the topic of this dvar torah itself. I’ve been joking recently with friends that “my filter” is broken these days.
In my worn down state, I’m more raw, rough around the edges in a way that my Midwestern roots don’t quite recognize. Yet I’ve found that as I share my own exhaustion with others, it’s given them permission to do the same: to let those guards down, to be vulnerable about the toll that being in a constant state of emotional stress has taken on themselves and their relationships.
So, perhaps, like that second story of the tablets, our broken hearts are worth taking with us into battle. They can be a catalyst for us to seek out connections we wouldn’t otherwise make efforts toward, and they can invite new depth to the relationships we already hold.
When we’re honest about our shattered pieces, we invite others to honestly share—and ultimately to accept—the parts of themselves and their own stories that also feel unwhole. Bearing witness to someone else’s pain isn’t easy, but it is a gift—a gift that has the power to promote healing. And healing is what we all need right now.
We have so many stone shards in our ark: pieces of unrealized dreams, grief, exhaustion, anxiety, and lives cut way too short. Let us honor these shards, carrying them with us and giving us strength for the battle ahead. Let us pick up the weight of our brokenness, feeling ourselves ache under its burden. In doing so, we may be tempted to collapse under its load. We may feel crushed by its sorrow, unable to move forward.
But, our story of the mishkan tells us that the Divine dwells among us—in our wholeness and in our brokenness we house the presence of God.
That’s worth repeating: in our wholeness and in our brokenness we house the presence of God.
May that Sacred presence bring us enough comfort in this time of pain to carry these broken pieces with us as we prepare to confront that which lies ahead.
May that brokenness spark our determination to be present with one another—as our raw, unfiltered selves. May we feel God’s presence in this holy work. May we remember that the Divine is as close as a single breath.
May we remember to breathe: with each inhale, drawing nearer to that sacred healing; and with each exhale, releasing that which leaves us aching. And in our brokenness, and in our wholeness, May we find peace.