A Sermon for Parashat Yitro:
I want everyone to imagine you have a trophy cabinet that records the moments of growth in your life. You know, like they have at schools. What do you put in that cabinet? Is it the awards, certificates, trophies, exam results. Surely yes. But where does true growth come from? Not just the successes surely. With social media preserving a veneer of life I think we have come to forget that life is not just the ‘highlights’ of our news-feed, it can also be challenging, disruptive and painful. I wonder if there is a way that our ‘trophy cabinet’ could include the broken as well as the whole, the painful lesson as well as the success? For that to happen I think we need to reconfigure public as well as private world-views.
And this was particularly in my mind today as I went to visit, just this week, many of our members at various care homes where people have dementia and other neurological problems that mean the radiance of their life is somehow diminished and, society at least, seems to suggest they are less useful. The reason why will become apparent towards the end of this sermon.
There is a concept in the Talmud, the document that becomes the record of conversation of Jewish sages on topics of life some 1500 years ago, has a heuristic for our approach to life: We should increase in holiness not decrease. Let me give you some of the examples of what this means and why it’s relevant.
First our most frequently cited example is Chanukah. On the festival of Chanukah we are told that we add extra candles each night because we increase in holiness. It is more nourishing for our souls to increase the light and, though perfectly logical to reduce the amount of light, the visible sense of diminished light in the world would be depressing at best. Whilst we think of time, there is an idea that Shabbat is holy and so we don’t reduce the amount of time we spend celebrating but rather increase in holy time by extending our celebration of Shabbat – which is why some keep celebrating deep into the late hours of Saturday night before marking its end.
From time we move to people. The High Priest, when the Temple stood 2000 years ago, had a special task on Yom Kippur to do certain ritual practices in the Holy of Holies. The Mishnah and Talmud discusses the possibility of the off chance that the High Priest will be suddenly disqualified the night before Yom Kippur. In this situation, he is replaced by a new High Priest who has already been prepared. But the person who was disqualified cannot reduce his status to a common priest because having been brought up to the heights of High Priest we cannot decrease in holiness and hence he cannot do the lower duties again.
So the principle applies to time and to people. Now objects.
In a moving text in the Talmud we read that the firepans of certain rebels against Moses. The Korach rebellion is one against Moses’ leadership and his apparent superiority over everyone else. The firepans – incense smokers – are part of the rebellion and instead of throwing them out, the firepans are incorporated into the covering of the altar in the Israelite sanctuary. Through reading that even rebel firepans become part of the furniture of the sanctuary we learn that they are ‘increased’ in holiness, not simply discarded.
And then the Talmud says something astonishing about the set of ‘tablets’ which Moses receives in our Torah portion today.
You probably know that this set of tablets is shattered by Moses when he comes down from Mount Sinai to see that the Children of Israel have created the Golden Calf. Imagine, the Tablets of the Law inscribed by God are smashed – what do you do with the shattered pieces? The Talmud tells us the following:
“Rabbi Yosef taught – this teaches that the tablets and the broken tablets were [both of them] placed in the ark;” (bMenachot 99a).
The ark of the covenant, that holy object in the tabernacle (the portable sanctuary) which contains the holiest object in the Israelite’s history – the gift from God to the people – contains not just the set of tablets that Moses refashions after smashing the tablets the first time. It contains the first shattered set too. Because we do not reduce in holiness, we only increase.
This is what I call the Torah of brokenness and second chances. Nearly everything in the Torah comes in twos, a failed first effort (and sometimes second effort), does not mean the end of the story. We do all fail or reach the heights and then feel like we’ve fallen. And yet, central to the narrative of the Torah, is the idea of a second (and even third) chance. We should only ever aspire to increase in holiness and never decrease.
This seems to me to be a simply wonderful idea by which to live. In life we will always have set backs, things that go wrong. The Talmud tells us even the broken and once glorious should not be discarded as worthless, we should see everything as part of our climb to holiness. And it’s not just objects but those unique occasions in time that we should be striving to ‘increase’ in holiness. Not that every hour should be holy, but every unique moment should be savoured for itself and we should not be eager to seek out the next thrill.
And then the Talmud says something that I think is one of the most moving tributes to human frailty and splendour.
Having heard, that the tablets and the broken tablets were both of them placed in the ark, the Talmud goes on to say, “from here we learn that a sage who forgets his learning by his own misfortune, one should not treat him with disrespect.”
I find this idea, regarding a scholar who has forgotten his learning, so beautiful. People are likened to the Tablets of the law (well, specifically in this case a Torah scholar is likened to the Torah). We do not set aside people who seemingly no longer have value to society or whose grandeur seems to have been diminished or whose vitality has dulled.
We must protect, love and support people those whose external splendour seems to have lost its shine, by society’s standards of ‘usefulness’. But it’s also the cases of everyone here today too. Judaism says we should ascend in holiness and allow even the broken fragments of attempts to grow to sit in the holy ark of our hearts.
I wonder who we let fall by the wayside and who and what should sit in the ark with us (and what faults, flaws and failings do we not countenance in others, even though we should), perhaps we even treat ourselves with harsh derision. This is the Torah of Brokenness and Second Chances – for those around us and for ourselves.
The pristine giving of Torah at Sinai is a moment but almost immediately the sheen is lost with the making of the Golden Calf. How do we move on from this moment and how does it become part of who we are? We accept that brokenness of the mind, the heart, the soul, is part of what makes us who we are and we commit to build it into the sacred ark that we carry around with us – our public ‘social media’ news-feed and our private ‘trophy cabinet’. And then, well it’s obvious really isn’t it, we learn, we grow, we try again and we let those around us try again too. The Torah of brokenness and second chances.