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Kol Nidre 5783 (2023) Sermon

Enduring Understanding: Out of our brokenness we embrace our inner strength and resolve  


Imagine after years of slavery and months of wandering the desert, you've arrived at a mountain. The mountain erupts with fire and its peak is concealed with clouds. Your ears tingle with a constant shrill of a shofar wailing from up high. You're tired and sweaty and confused. Moses says he will ascend the mountain to retrieve a gift from God. Days then weeks go by and there is no sign of his return. Your neighbors are getting anxious. Rumors are spreading that Moses has abandoned the people. You then hear that Aaron will lead us towards a new connection with God and all that is required of you is to hand over some jewelry. So you do and a few days later there's a huge party in the center of the camp. You can't help but partake, dancing around a golden calf. Then you look up and you see Moses standing with 2 stone tablets And he hurls them to the ground. The shattering of the stones echoes between the mountains and a deathly silence falls over the camp. You have just witnessed the breaking of God's relationship with the people of Israel.


Imagine the emotions flowing through you at this moment. You're frightened of Moses's anger; you know that he has a temper he can't control. You're worried that this will become the place of your death. Freedom feels more like a dream as the seconds of awkward silence tick by. You're at a loss that a gift from God now lies in ruins before you. What do you do with the broken remnants of a broken promise? You just have to wait and then help pick up the shards and keep hope for another chance. At the base of the mountain, you are in pieces. 


Now imagine it's your wedding day. You are standing under the chuppah, a canopy symbolizing your new home. As you stand there, dressed to the nines, the rabbi speaks words of blessing. You look out of the corner of your eye and you see all your friends and family lovingly looking up at you. You look to your left and see your soon-to-be spouse, beautifully composed but you know the tears are welling up inside. You’ve planned every detail of this moment for months and you’ve finally arrived. It all feels surreal. But the disquieted and apprehensive feelings creep up in you. You have worked so hard for this moment and haven’t even talked about what happens tomorrow: day 1 of a hopefully long life together. Your partner isn’t perfect and you accept them for their imperfections and you hope you are given the same chance. You think: am I really doing this?!


Imagine the end approaches and you are told it is your big moment, to smash a glass. The echoes of the crunching reverberate throughout the room. You have learned that this ritual comes from the place you are feeling now. There is no perfection in any relationship, whether we are talking about partners or our human relationship with the divine. There will be guaranteed ups and downs. The smashing of the glass strives to be the most difficult moment moving forward. But you recognize challenges will remain. So what do you do with the broken remnants of a new promise? You collect the colorful shards, knowing at home there awaits a mezuzah to be filled to adorn your front door as a reminder of this day. The brokenness of this moment will hopefully bring resolve to your new home. As you process out, the future remains unknown before you.


These feelings of anxiety and uncertainty that we encounter at a wedding and at moments of revelation are expected as we enter Yom Kippur. Since we last gathered on Rosh haShanah, we have done the introspective task to forgive and began the hard work of teshuvah. And now 10 days later, we sit with anticipation for the climax of the high holiday season. The ancient chords of Kol Nidrei ring through the room. The images and metaphors seem more real this time as we anticipate the long day ahead. As we climb the emotional and spiritual mountain of the high holidays, we are tired, we are anxious, and we feel broken.


Yom Kippur taps into the brokenness within us. 5 times throughout Yom Kippur we recite a series of communal confessions, owning the failings of our community. An alphabet of woe takes center stage as we focus on the frailty and unworthiness within us. It would be pretentious to declare we are blameless. But recognizing and owning our imperfections frightens us to our core. In a counter-cultural moment, our liturgy embraces our spiritual blunders. 


Repeating mantras, we know we have strayed from perfection. We know that each one of us has potential that we have yet to tap into. Each time, when we recite a moment we've collectively gone astray, we take our hand in a fist and beat our hearts. We don't do this out of some sort of self-flagellation or way to incur pain on the body. Instead, we use this action to break open the armor over our hearts. Our hearts feel pain and vulnerability most acutely. Well earned, our souls are protected so we can manage throughout the world. But over the course of a year, our protections grow thick; it prevents our hearts from feeling anything, the broken and the whole. Yom Kippur peels back the layers and returns us to the kernel of truth: our hearts are full of cracks and that is what makes us human. Brokenness, as an essential human condition, can strengthen our inner resolve; by embracing our frailty, we embody humanity’s fullness.


There is a Japanese artistic tradition called kintsugi which embraces the imperfections within art. Kintsugi is the practice of taking broken pieces of pottery and repairing them, filling the gaps between the shards with gold. Believing in the power of recycling, kintsugi makes something new out of something damaged. Through this practice, not only is the pottery remade but becomes entirely something new. It now has value not only because of the addition of gold but because it holds a story. It forever becomes a statement piece and whenever anyone asks it can inspire a deeper connection. 


Our lives become holy when our spiritual fractures are repaired with teshuvah. Like a scar on our bodies, a kintsugi approach to our souls proves life has been lived. We don't pretend that life is perfect and some of us can escape unscathed. Life is complex and there are many unknowns. Through acceptance and acknowledgment of our miscalculations, we can find a way to renew ourselves. A shattered glass now becomes a work of art. A heart in pain becomes a marker of life.


In the mystical tradition, as the world was created, divine light encompassed everything. But the light was too powerful to contain any life. So God contracted and placed the light into holy vessels. But the light could not be contained. The vessels shattered, sending sparks of divinity raining down on the Earth. From that moment, our mission has been to uncover these sparks of light, these broken shards scattered around us, embedded within us, and return them to their proper state of glory. This process is called tikkun olam, repairing the world. According to this teaching, because the vessels shattered, through this moment of brokenness, we find potential to do good. We all have the power to be like a piece of kintsugi, taking the shards of our stories and our hearts and gluing them back together with the precious elements of life. We can feel and embrace the wholeness of living through a repaired soul.


Now back at Sinai, once again we witness Moses journey up the mountain. 40 days later he returns with a new set of tablets. It happens to be Yom Kippur. As we take these new tablets and put them into the mishkan, the dwelling place that will follow us through the desert, we return to the question of the broken shards. The remains of the first set of tablets cannot be left behind. And so we place them beside the second set of full tablets. A reminder that even in our fullest, proudest moments, we remember the broken moments too. But more so, in the darkest deepest pits of reality, that which was broken can be made whole again in a new way. The duality of the tablets, broken and whole, models and mimics our own lives, broken yet whole.


We need the brokenness to make ourselves feel strong. We need to feel unsteady and unsure to feel resolved. There need to be seeds of doubt for hope to flourish. It is through this embrace of imperfections that we can achieve something beyond our wildest dreams. 


As we read in Psalm 51:

זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה לֵב־נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה אֱלֹהִים לֹא תִבְזֶה

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken, crushed heart, O God, You will not despise.


We are all vessels in the hands of God. Cracks and imperfections are not only encouraged, they are expected. The raw human essence can be molded into new and beautiful forms. We are the potters, masons, welders, and glass-blowers of our destiny, shaping and forming new renditions of ourselves. We are the beautiful and story-laden pieces of kintsugi, glimmering gold between shards of imperfection and potential.


Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in

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