Friday, March 20, 2009

Pick Up the Pieces





The “Tablets of Testimony,” the stone tablets upon which God inscribed the Ten Commandments, have a powerful and deeply symbolic story to tell. Beyond the words inscribed by God, the journey of these stone tablets reveals an important lesson in life.

A mere 40 days after hearing God’s voice pronounce the Ten Commandments, the Israelites suffered a serious spiritual setback. Unable to retain, or even comprehend, the idea of a formless spirit speaking in a divine voice, they returned to the more familiar, simplistic, man-made idols of their immediate Egyptian past — the golden calf. Upon shaping the golden calf, Aaron declared, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

Moses, who spent those same 40 days atop Mount Sinai with God, then descended the mountain “with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, written on both sides” (Exodus 32:15).

Who had shaped and written these tablets?

“The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God” (Exodus 32:16). Carrying in his hand the weight of “God’s word,” Moses looked down at his own brothers and sisters. “And it happened when he drew near the camp that he saw the calf and the dancing, and Moses’ wrath flared, and he flung the tablets from his hand and smashed them at the bottom of the mountain” (Exodus 32:19). In one dark moment, the fantasy of an ideal people becoming the bearers of God’s word was shattered.

Next came the challenge: Where do we go from here?

The Talmud teaches: “Rabbi Judah bar Ilai taught that two arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness — one in which the Torah was kept, and one in which the tablets broken by Moses were kept. The one in which the Torah was placed was kept in the Tent of Meeting; the other, containing the broken tablets, would come and go with them” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim, 1:1).

Yet another Talmudic teaching goes one step further, asserting that “both the new tablets of the law and the broken pieces of the first tablets were kept in the same Ark of the Covenant” (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot, 8b).

How did Moses and the Israelites move beyond their shared breakdown? Realizing their mistake and what they had potentially lost, the Israelites collected the broken remains of their first encounter with God, and they gave them to Moses. Fortunate enough to be given a second chance, Moses brought down another set of God-given tablets and placed them alongside the broken pieces.

Whether it happened the way the first Talmudic teaching describes (separate arks) or the second teaching tells it (the same ark), the rabbis offer us a powerful reminder that wholeness and brokenness share equal space in life. The Tablets of Testimony, in both whole and broken form, is a metaphor for the human condition — striving for perfection, all the while embracing imperfection. Both the whole and the broken are considered sacred in the Jewish tradition. They are both “God’s word.”

The great Chasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, taught: “Nothing is more whole than a broken heart.”

Failures, broken dreams and shattered fantasies are an inevitable and natural part of life. In fact, the “shattering of tablets” is often a necessary gateway through which we must pass in order to reach the greater heights that we seek in life.

Through the episode of the golden calf and the broken tablets, Moses and the Israelites teach us that even after openly defying God’s word, it is still possible to pick up the pieces and start over again.

Quality of Life





It was a very brief meeting, and a seemingly peculiar exchange of words. For the first time, the head of the Israelite household -- Jacob -- meets Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.

The only thing they shared in common was Joseph.

To Jacob, Joseph was his son, and to Pharaoh, Joseph was the economic wizard who saved his empire's economy from total disaster.

If one were asked to speculate on what these two men would speak about during their first meeting, it might go something like this:

"Jacob, you raised a brilliant young man. Without him, our country would be in a great depression right now."

Beaming with pride, Jacob would respond, "Thank you, your majesty, it's a great honor to see my son serving in your distinguished court. He always was a dreamer, and I am proud that he followed his dreams."

Pride, honor, and praise -- all of the ingredients one would expect in a first conversation between a grateful king and a proud father.

There is no such exchange between the two, nothing even remotely close. Instead, here's how it went: "Joseph brought his father and presented him to Pharaoh. Jacob blessed Pharaoh. 'How many are the days of your life?' asked Pharaoh of Jacob. Jacob replied to Pharaoh: 'The days of the years of my sojourning are a hundred and thirty years; few and unhappy have the days of my life been. I did not attain the days of the years of life that my fathers did during their sojourn through life.' With that, Jacob blessed Pharaoh and left his presence." (Genesis 47:7-10)

Far removed from the typically schmaltzy story of "Your son is so wonderful," and "Yes, I'm so proud of him," the brief exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob has an altogether different aura, rooted in what we call in Hebrew hochmat haim, or life's wisdom.

As the leader of a powerful empire, Pharaoh had certainly met many world leaders. In his meetings with them, he certainly drew from their wisdom and advice, as would any intelligent ruler. One can only imagine what Pharaoh expected Jacob to look like, but the 16th century Polish commentator Kli Yakar tells us that Pharaoh was shocked when he saw a thin, frail, weakened old man approaching him, barely able to walk toward his throne. Jacob begins by blessing Pharaoh, and this seems to bond the two men, so much so that Pharaoh poses a wise, carefully worded, personal question: "How many are the days of your life?" The wording of Pharaoh's question caught the eye of many commentators, who wonder why Pharaoh did not simply ask, "How old are you?" Why did he word his question as "How many are the days of your life?"

Jacob's response reflects a deep understanding of Pharaoh's carefully worded question: "The days of the years of my sojourning are 130, [but] few and unhappy have been the days of my life."

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German commentator, remarks that Jacob differentiates between living and existing: "You ask how many are the days of my life? I have not lived much. I have sojourned on this earth for 130 years. The days of the years that I can really call my life were in reality only few -- and were themselves bitter and full of worry."

The Netziv, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva during the second half of the 19th century, offers an additional insight: "My years of success in life were few and bitter, for even when I had actually achieved material wealth and financial security, my life was still filled with woe and sorrow, such as the death of my wife Rachel and the rape of my daughter Dinah."

Jacob's answer is filled with perspective on life's big question: How do we measure and define a "happy life"? Is it by living to a ripe old age? Is it through material wealth and success?

According to Hirsch, Jacob was telling Pharaoh that a true human being does not see life through length of years, rather through the quality of days lived. As much as we may like to think otherwise, Hirsch says, "It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning." Jacob's perspective brings to mind the custom of reciting Psalm 90 at a funeral, when -- before burying a loved one -- we ask God to "Teach us to number our days, so that we may get a heart of wisdom."

The Netziv's comments add the powerful reminder to Pharaoh that material wealth alone does not bring happiness. In another psalm recited by mourners (Psalm 49), we are reminded that material wealth is not carried with us into the grave. Jacob told this wealthy king that his great palace, wealth and fame are of no value without the true happiness, love and fulfillment of family life and personal relationships.

In the waning days of a 130-year-old life that included receiving his father's blessing by way of deceit, a terrible relationship with his brother, an unfulfilled married life, the rape of his daughter and constant strife between his children, Jacob teaches Pharaoh -- and all of us -- that happiness is not about reaching old age or amassing wealth; rather, it's about the quality and richness of day-to-day life. In this regard, his brief encounter with Pharaoh is arguably his greatest and wisest moment as a patriarch.