Broken and Blessed (Erev Rosh HaShannah 5781, Rabbi David S. Widzer; 9/18/2020)
A story for this Rosh HaShannah eve: There was once an old woman who lived by herself on the top of a hill. It was an old house, one without running water. Each day, the woman would take a long pole and place it across her shoulders. On one side of the pole she’d hang an old bucket. On the other side, another bucket. Always the same buckets, always the same sides of the same pole. Down the hill she would walk to the stream, where she filled up the two buckets with fresh water. She would hang them again, always the same bucket on the same side of the same pole, and walk slowly back up the hill. The bucket on her right side was a little worse for wear than the other. In fact, it had a small crack in the bottom, such that drops of water would seep out as she walked. She’d arrive home with a full bucket on her left, and a half-filled bucket on her right, every time.
This was her routine: down the hill, left-hand bucket, right-hand bucket, fill with water, walk back home, drip, drip, drip, one full bucket, one half-filled. And this went on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
You might not have thought it was possible, but the right-hand bucket was just devastated by this state of affairs. A water bucket has one purpose in its existence, to carry water. And the right-hand bucket couldn’t do that successfully. Its darned crack leaked water every day, drop by drop, so that it only delivered half of its potential to the woman. It felt sad and ashamed. What kind of a bucket was it, after all, if it couldn’t do this one thing? After enough years of this disappointment, the bucket finally summoned up the courage to say something.
One morning, after once again dripping away half its holdings, the right-hand bucket spoke to the woman. “Excuse me,” it said, “but I am so very sorry. I want to apologize to you.”
The woman seemed more surprised by the sentiment than by the fact that her right-hand bucket was talking to her. “Why, whatever for?” she asked. “Why would you need to apologize?”
The bucket explained, “All these years, you work so hard every day to get water, walking down the hill, filling us with water, trudging back up again. I’ve never been able to do my job successfully. I have this crack and I leak and half the water drips away. I’m just a stupid broken bucket and you should get a new one, one that can be the right kind of right-side bucket for you.”
The woman looked at the bucket with a mix of sadness and caring. “You don’t know, do you? Come, let me show you.” The woman picked up the bucket and stood with it at the top of the hill. “Look on the right side of the path, the one you are on as we walk down. What do you see?”
“Not much. Just the same dusty path as always.”
“Now look on the other side, the side that you are on as we walk up the hill.” The bucket looked. This was something different altogether. This side of the path was blooming with beautiful flowers, a lush carpet of colors. It was gorgeous. “I don’t understand,” said the bucket.
The woman smiled. “Years ago, when I noticed that leak of yours, I planted seeds on that side of the path. I knew you would drip, drip, drip water onto them and help them grow. Every morning, you keep them flourishing, you keep them beautiful. I’m sorry you never knew this. I’m sorry you thought you were broken. You’re not a failure. It’s amazing that precisely the thing that you thought made you broken was exactly the thing that was needed for beauty in the world. Your brokenness is a blessing, to those flowers, to our world, and to me.”
The bucket looked out at the two sides of the path. It sighed. It had never before realized; it was broken AND blessed. It gazed at the array of flowers and thought about its half-empty contents. And for the first time in many long years, it felt … full.
Friends, we gather tonight at a time when so many parts of our world may feel broken. Our country seems divided to the point that we can hardly talk to one another or respect those whose opinions differ from ours. Inequality and discrimination, based on the color of our skin, the size of our bank account, our gender, or our religion, seem to be pervasive. Nature seems out to get us, with wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, murder hornets, and more. Economic wellbeing seems to be slipping. And this virus. For the past six months, this virus has upended our lives, infecting millions, killing tens and tens of thousands, limiting our interactions with one another. There is a lot that is broken in our world.
And it’s not a long stretch from there to feeling broken ourselves, worn down, overwhelmed, worried. Sometimes we have struggled with fear of the disease, or of those who have the disease. Or we struggle with isolation, boredom, loneliness, and the desire for real human interaction and touch. Sometimes we are overburdened with too much to do, with educating children and completing our work and trying to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy. Having to hunt for the hidden treasures of Clorox wipes and paper towels, getting food safely on the table for our families, navigating middle school math and high school social drama while keeping one’s own sanity – it all can feel like a lot. It can all make us feel broken.
And yet, I believe that it is possible, even in the midst of the brokenness, to also feel blessed and full and whole. The message at the start of a new Jewish year is one of hope. As our friend the right-hand bucket discovered, broken and blessed are not necessarily opposites or incompatible. Sometimes they may be inexorably linked.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker finds this lesson in part of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that is in our Rosh HaShanah liturgy. Human beings are compared to a shattered vessel, to grass that withers, to flowers that fade. That first image, the earthenware vessel that is shattered, in Hebrew is cheres ha-nishbar. Rabbi Tucker points out that there is only one place in all of Torah where those root words appear together. It comes in a discussion of items that have become ritually impure and need to be purified again in order to be used. The text commands that an earthenware jug or plate that has become ritually impure must be shattered. The rabbis of the Mishnah say that the act of breaking it purifies it, and that the broken pieces can be glued back together. In fact, the Mishnah encourages us to do that so that the vessel can be used again. It is in the act of breaking that an item that is impure can again become holy. That is to say, the fact that something is broken can allow it to once again bring blessing into the world.
Rabbi Tucker proposes that we human beings can be like broken earthenware, cheres ha-nishbar, flawed vessels, made impure by the deeds and misdeeds of life. We, ourselves, can feel broken by what we have done or by what has happened to us. But once we are broken, that act holds the promise of repair, of redemption, of renewal, of blessing.
It hasn’t happened for all of us, and certainly not all the time, but we know of people who, in the midst of the pandemic, have found blessings. Some have learned a new language, or baked delicious breads, or completed thousand-piece puzzles with their families. I have a friend who, while regretting the loss of six scheduled college visits with his high school daughter, has relished the hours of enclosed time with an otherwise reluctant teenager. Personally, I’ll tell you that, in the last six months, my family has watched together all 23 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whereas maybe we had not seen 23 movies all of us together in the few years before that.
There are blessings in other broken corners of our world, shards of holiness amongst the pain and hurt. Nature’s aberrant behavior has people more focused on caring for our environment. In the aftermath of racist violence, more people are understanding and confronting issues of racial inequality. More voices are speaking out against instances of anti-Semitism. More people are engaged in ensuring that every citizen has the opportunity to exercise their legitimate right to vote. In the midst of this awful pandemic, we are caring for others in our community, donating to our food pantry, making sure that those who are in need are tended to. Brokenness doesn’t have to mean a lack of blessings. It just may take more effort to see how the brokenness and blessings connect.
I learned from Larry Dressler about an ancient pottery technique from Japan called Kintsugi. Dating back perhaps to the 15th century, it was an art form where damaged ceramic pieces were repaired by filling in the cracks, or rejoining broken pieces, with molten gold. The repair then becomes part of the artistry of the piece itself. As Larry teaches, “Once the repair is complete, the ‘brokenness’ of the item — its defects — become its source of beauty and resilience.” When we put back together our broken pieces, we can find holiness and blessing
None of this is to say that the brokenness isn’t real or hurtful or debilitating. It is real. And hard. But too often, we see brokenness only as inherently bad. Sometimes, brokenness just is. And sometimes it’s an opportunity to see blessings where we otherwise would see only failure. As Leonard Cohen sings in his song, “Anthem,” “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Our broken parts are still holy. They still provide blessings. After the incident of the Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses shattered the first tablets of the 10 Commandments and had to go back up to get a replacement set. Ultimately, both sets were placed in the Ark of the Covenant, the intact set and the broken pieces of the set that had been shattered. They both were a source of holiness and blessings for the Israelites.
As we come into this new year, at this most unusual time, in this most unusual fashion, we can acknowledge that pieces of our world are broken and that we may feel broken. Things are hard and difficult and scary and overwhelming. AND we can acknowledge that there are shards of blessings and holiness among the brokenness. It isn’t an either/or situation. We are marking this new year separated into our little boxes on the screen, each in our own homes, a very different way than we have ever celebrated Rosh HaShannah before, one that we never would have chosen. And yet we are spiritually united, drawn together by technology and the exigencies of the moment to create something new, something holy, something blessed.
Our tradition teaches that all of God’s instruments (meaning us, human beings), all of God’s instruments are broken vessels. We are broken earthenware and leaky buckets. And yet we can be rejoined, one to another, by the molten gold of community, of friendship, of faith, of love. And in doing so, we bring carpets of color, bouquets of blessings, into our world.
As this new year begins, O God, may we know that we are half-empty, but also full.
May we know that we are broken, but also blessed.
Kein yehi ratzon, may this be God’s will.
And let us say, Amen. There are many versions of this story. I learned it first in “Three Times Chai,” a great Jewish storybook edited by Laney Katz Becker. Its use for a Rosh HaShannah sermon was taught to me by Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, http://cbatampa.blogspot.com/2017/09/erev-rosh-hashana-broken-bucket.html, and this version owes much to his retelling of the story.  Leviticus 6:21.  Mishnah Kelim 2:1.  “Shattered Pottery – Unshattered Hope,” by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, PhD, in Who By Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef, edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010), p. 229-231.  http://bluewingconsulting.com/on-my-mind-the-art-of-self-repair/.  Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” on The Future (1992).  Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 14b.  Leviticus Rabbah 7:2.