I’m not sure how many of us appreciate the times we live in. The average person today has more comforts, better food, better entertainment, better transportation than royalty did only 150 years ago. We think nothing of showing Hollywood movies in the privacy of our own homes, microwaving food of world-famous chefs stored in our freezers and listening to performances of world-famous conductors on our smart phones. In addition we have instant access to the knowledge of the world on all our mobile devices.
However, much as we value our things, when they break, what do we do? We throw them out. Americans have an obsession with their cars, for example. But when they get a bit worn, they just trade them in. Our love for our things is afunctional, conditional love. So long as they work, we love them. The minute they stop, we replace them. And even when they work just fine, how often do we junk them for the latest model? Clothing, cars, computers, cell phones and even homes are all traded in well in advance of need—simply because we want the latest.
And it’s not just with things. A reporter interviewed the mother of a Palestinian suicide bomber. He was just a teenager. When people came to offer condolences to his mother, she said, “I don’t want condolences. I want congratulations. I encouraged my son to sacrifice himself. It is a victory.” Then, when the reporter asked how she could have given permission to her child to go on a suicide mission, she responded, “We can always make more.” Can you believe that? Her son was disposable! Yes, it’s an extreme case, but if you really come to think about it, the sentiments expressed by that mother have very much become the thinking of our time.
Do you remember as a kid collecting bottles because you could get 2 cents for them at the local grocery store? When a toy broke—you fixed it! Remember when your mother brought something home from shopping and after she emptied the bag, what did she do with it? That’s right; she folded it up and kept it. And after a jar of food was empty, she washed it and put it away. When I grew up, in Jewish homes, most of the drinking glasses were from yahrzeit candles. Who does any of that anymore?
Unfortunately, this has carried over into our relationships as well. Our throw-it-away society has developed “disposable” relationships that allow us to so quickly to sever relationships of countless years. That’s one reason the divorce rate is so high. In fact, marriages have become so disposable that so many couples are choosing not to marry and almost half the babies born in America now are born to single mothers. And this week I saw a statistic that gave me pause. Did you know that more than half the population of our prisons was born out of wedlock?
And don’t think this is just happening in the non-Jewish world. According to the American Jewish Committee, more Jews between the ages of 18 and 40 are not married than are married! It’s not hard to understand why! The New York Times reports that on television not one of the 25 most popular programs has a happily married couple. These days the most popular books would lead someone to believe that marriage is futile and hopeless. It began with Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus. It continued with, They Just Don’t Understand, and it’s now reached the following new titles: What Men Don’t Want Women to Know: the Secrets, the Lies, the Unspoken Truth; and He’s Just Not That Into You; or How to Heal the Hurt by Hating; and How to Dump a Guy: a Coward’s Manual, and my favorite: How To Make Your Man Behave in 21 Days or Less Using the Secrets of Professional Dog Trainers. Would you want to get married under these circumstances?
The fact of the matter is that in this, the age of the disposable, marriage has changed from being a life-long commitment into being a one year lease with an option to renew. But the reality is, if you go into marriage with the attitude that we’ll try it and see…and if it doesn’t work, if it becomes painful, we can always go our separate ways…if part of you is in the relationship and part of you is standing outside the relationship evaluating it…you simply won’t care enough to make it work out.
I know of a rabbi who celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary and when a congregant asked him what was the key to the success of his marriage, he replied, “My wife and I agreed long ago that no matter how busy we were, no matter what our professional obligations, once a week—no matter what—we would go out to dinner. She went on Mondays and I went on Wednesdays!” Now, that may have worked for them…but I never even thought of trying that!
Do you think that Palestinian mother was the only one willing to “dispose” of her child? An article in Psychology Today magazine tells us of a startling development: there are a growing number of broken families in which neither parent wants custody. A lawyer told me he has children for adoption because neither parent wants them after the divorce! Talk about a disposable society!
In today’s Torah portion, after the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, is completed, we are told (Ex. 40:20): vayiteyn et haEydut el haAron, “that Moses placed the Tablets of the 10 Commandments in the Ark.” The Rabbis of the Talmud note that the word for Tablets, Eydut, is plural. So imagine their surprise to read in the regular Haftorah (I Kings 8:9) for today’s parsha, after the dedication of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem: “There was nothing inside the Ark but the 2 tablets.” If the word Eydut, “tablet” is already plural, then 2 of them must mean that Moses placed 2 additional tablets beyond the 2 tablets containing the 10 Commandments!
The Talmud (BB14b; Menachot 99a) explains: “Both the whole tablets and the fragments of the tablets (that were broken) were placed together in the Ark.” Remember when Moses returned to the Children of Israel, carrying the 10 Commandments after 40 days on Mt. Sinai? He was so outraged by the idolatry of the Golden Calf he saw when he approached the people, that he shattered the tablets on the ground. After the people had repented of their sin, Moses returned to Mt. Sinai where he received a 2nd pair.
So far, the story is typically American—the old commandments were trashed and a new, sleeker model was substituted in its place. But the Talmud tells us that something very un-American had actually transpired. The love the Jews felt for that 1st pair of tablets was not simply because of their function, but something unconditional—bestowed not for what their use could be—in their broken state they had no further use—but for what they would always represent. Gd gave those tablets to them as a sign of His love for them.
Think of the feelings one has for a wedding ring. Chances are strong that in the course of a lifetime, one will be able to purchase more elaborate, more expensive rings. Yet, one’s love for that original plain gold band is not simply because it can adorn a finger. We love our wedding bands because they remind us of a momentous and happy day in our lives. They signify the most important relationship we will ever have with another human being. Those rings—like the 1st tablets—are a symbol of love and so are irreplaceable.
And therefore, the broken shards of the tablets were not discarded like so much garbage. They were preserved and accorded a place of honor because they were a sign of Gd’s love. They were then kept next to the ark containing the whole tablets to teach us a crucial lesson.
When our world, our spirits, and our very hearts are hurt and our lives crumbling before us, we are the broken tablets!
By putting the broken pieces next to the whole ones, we are taught that the brokenness can be redeemed…can be restored. Brokenness can be fixed! Every time the Israelites looked at the ark they were reminded that their world fell apart because of their sin. Yet, there was also forgiveness and healing and then life can then go on.
The Talmud (Menachot 99a) learns from this placing of the broken tablets alongside the whole ones that, “Hence a scholar who has forgotten his learning (represented by the broken pieces)…must not be treated with disrespect.” I know a colleague of mine who had a chevrusa, a study partner for 10 years. As life would have it, he developed Alzheimer’s and lost most of his knowledge and learning skills. Nevertheless, my colleague still went every week for 3 hours to learn with him. The broken shards must not be discarded. But do we not discard them? Society has played a cruel trick on us. Just when our parents have plenty of time for us, we, their children and grandchildren, are so busy that we have little time for them and we too often make them feel as if they are disposable and are being discarded.
An crucial part of being a Jew concerns how we treat our broken tablets. How do we treat those people who are ill or those people with an infirmity or a handicap, those people who are different—for whatever reason—from the rest of us? Those who are broken must never be cast away or discarded. They are ever as much—or perhaps even more—holy than those of us who are whole. As the Psalmist puts it (34:19): Karov Hashem l’nishb’rey levy; v‘et dakey ruach yoshi-a, “Gd is close to the brokenhearted; and those crushed in spirit, He saves!”
Broken-ness is not a curse, or a punishment. It’s the cost of being alive. The price for being created with free-will is that we will make mistakes. While we must not feel good about our mistakes, we must never confuse who we are with the mistakes we’ve made. We are not our mistakes, our sins. Each of us is a holy image of Gd.
How were both sets of tablets placed in the ark? The Talmud tells us: “The broken tablets were set at the bottom of the ark, and the complete set was arranged on top. The broken set formed the foundation for the new set.” Broken-ness may drag us down, but it’s paradoxically what enables us to become most human. It’s what moves us from sympathy to empathy, from having just a distant concern for those in need, to an identification with, and an urge to help, those broken souls around us. In other words, being broken enables us to reach higher than we ever could before.
My friends, we don’t have to give in to the “The Age of the Disposable!” May Gd, give us the strength to overcome our society’s throwaway ethic and make our lives bound up in the lives of others so that others will bless our name for having lived and shared, and given and cared—and not dispose of us. And to this let us all say, Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis