Shabbat Sermon – Va’etchanan 2021 – Living with Brokenness

At the start of  the Tokyo Olympics – let’s begin today with a Japanese proverb.

A water bearer in Japan had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water.

At the end of the long walk from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots of  water to his house.

Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.

After 2 years of what perceived to be bitter failure,  It spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house. The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side?

That’s because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you water them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.”

This has been the week of Tisha b’av – the day on which we bring to mind the experience that The Jewish people like that pot is a broken people in need of the comfort that we just heard from the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah “Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people”.  We were first broken by the destruction of our Temple in Jerusalem and being taken away from Israel and Judah into exile in Babylon.  We were broken again by the destruction of our second Temple by the Romans.  Then broken by the expulsion of our people from place after place and broken by the Shoah – the Holocaust.

The response of our people could have been despair and resignation and to bring about the end of Judaism and its unique contribution to the world.  In the lives of many individual Jews this is for sure what did indeed happen.  But if we take our people as a whole, despair, resignation and finality has never been our reaction to being broken.

Like the water bearer, every time when what we need is broken, we have responded by creating something new, by an act of transformation.  We have planted the seeds so that that brokenness becomes the source of its own repair.  Each of these events that has broken us has been transformative – from the experience of exile our people created a Jewish religion that we portable – based on Avodah – Jewish worship in the Synagogue, a meeting place that could be anywhere – not in a Temple in Jerusalem.  Based on Torah – a system of Jewish learning and guidance which can be studied anywhere.  Based on G’milut Chasadim – good deeds of lovingkindness for each other that can be carried out anywhere and not based on a centralised sacrificial system.

From the destruction of the Temple and the priesthood we transformed Judaism into a non hierarchical religion where the Rabbi is not a holy figure with the power of blessing and curse but rather a Jew equal to all Jews, only with the benefit of a systematic Jewish education..  From the experience of expulsion we learned to create new communities, self reliant yet able to interact rapidly with the societies around them.  Each time we did this very quickly – over just a few years we set up the institutions that preserve Jewish life in place after place – synagogues, schools, welfare organisations, even cemeteries, and political activity to fight for emancipation.

There is one experience of brokenness that is too recent to analyse in this way.  We cannot yet truly know what will be the transformations wrought from our experience of the Shoah – but the place of the State of Israel in Jewish life worldwide will of course increasingly determine our future as will something that the Shoah did for Jewish identity – that we now measure Jewish success not by how well integrated we are in the society around us, as we once did before the Nazis shattered the dream but also by how much we are able to hold on to our Jewish identity, customs and traditions whilst still being part of those societies.  It is not assimilation that is now the measure of Jewish success but Jewish affirmation.

Dealing constructively, creatively and transformatively with brokenness is a major theme in Jewish tradition.  Not for nothing is the Jewish process of Social Action called Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.  We Jews see the world  as a place unredeemed.  It is why ultimately all real Judaism has to reject the message of a group such as Jews for Jesus which sees the world as already redeemed and somehow saved.  The world is unredeemed because as we can see all around us it is broken.  We do not live in the Garden of Eden.  So a Jew, whether religious or secular, must play their part in trying to repair that world – by helping to repair relationships between warring enemies, by helping the poor, the orphan and the lonely, by doing their part to bring justice and not prejudice to the world.

What about us as individuals?  None of us is perfect.  Each of us has flaws. Each of us has times when we fail to measure up to the best in us.  Each of us has that feeling of brokenness once in a while – for some it is the major determinant of their personality.  What lessons can we draw from the experience of the Jewish people as a whole in dealing with brokenness. What can we do so that our broken nature can water the flowers rather than shatter us into useless shards?

The Book of Lamentations or Eichah, which is the Megillah that we read on Tisha b’av includes these words: (Chap 3)

I said, My strength and my hope are perished from God;

Remembering my affliction and my misery, the rot and the stench.

My soul remembers them, and is bowed down inside me.

But This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.

The grace of God  has not ceased, and God’s compassion does not fail.

They are new every morning.

New every morning – the Jewish response to the broken spirit, to the broken relationship, to broken lives is to find a new direction building upon the past, remembering the past (as the Jewish community does on Tisha b’av) but transforming what we did and were in the past to meet the realities of today – to meet what is new every morning.

A Jew should not become stuck in the past – if Judaism had done then we would have died out with the destruction of the First Temple.  We have to move forward and renew our lives when we are broken.  Just as Judaism responds to losing our institutions by building new kinds of organisations so each of us Jews can respond, for example, to losing our relationships by building new kinds of relationships –which can never replace what we have lost – but which can enable us to live our fulfilled lives.

Just as the brokenness of Judaism has encouraged creativity as a response to the societies that we find ourselves in, so, when we feel broken we can find our outlet in creativity, in art and music and writing.

It is our flaws that bring our diversity, that make a Jewish community interesting and worth getting to know.  Furthermore each year we can each of us engage in a massive act of transformative repair as we prepare ourselves for the High Holydays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur where our At-one-ment can be achieved if we are truly ready to change.

The month of Ellul is just around the corner – the month when our transformative process toward the High Holidays must begin.  When Rabbi Debbie finished our service for Tisha b’Av last Saturday night – we sang one of the very final verses of the book of Lamentations.  It is a verse that we also sang just now as we closed the Ark – Hashivenu adonai elaycha, v’nashuva, Hadesh yamenu c’kedem – help us to return to you O God then we will return, renew our days as in the past.  Each time we are Broken may God grant us the strength and courage to be responsible for our own renewal and may others help us to enable our brokenness to plant the seeds of that renewal.