Many years ago, an elderly man named *Sam came into my office and told me some disturbing news. He lived his life with dignity and worked hard as a social worker. He did “everything right” — saving for retirement, raising a family, and buying a house. But when the market crashed as well as his health, he lost it all. Now, bound to his wheelchair, he sat across my desk and asked me, “What am I going to do now, Rabbi?” “I feel like a piece of trash, and I’ve just been thrown away.”
Broken. Tossed out. Trash.
We know many people like Sam — those that seem to take much and give little. The refugee with no home, the poor, the elderly, the foster child, the mentally ill. There’s an urge in our community to cast them aside and to only concentrate our efforts on those who are “good citizens” and those that are “productive members of society.” If we would build a perfect world, the thinking goes, we can only use perfect people.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The biblical worldview is that we live in a perfect world, perfect because it is broken.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa we see this most clearly. Just as Moses receives the Ten Commandments, two stone tablets, perfect in every way and carved by God high up on the mountain, the Israelites in their impatience, form a golden calf and begin to worship it. At the height of sacred fidelity we find profane infidelity. In the moment that is most intimate and vulnerable we find its greatest danger. Upon seeing the camp enraptured by the idol, Moses throws the stone Tablets of the Law down and smashes them at the foot of the mountain. (Ex.32:19). The rabbis add that the sin of the Golden Calf was so explicit and so defiant that when Moses broke the stone tablets, God said, “Yafe asita sh’shbarta, it’s good that you broke the stones.” (T.J. Taanit 23a).
God smiled when Moses smashed the stones.
God’s smile is not wrathful, but wistful. There is more to this story than a jealous God and what at first blush appears to be anger, quickly turns into a healing opportunity. Very quickly, after justice is served and punishment meted out, God asks Moses to “Carve to tablets of stone, like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first which you shattered.” (Ex. 34:1) Later in Deuteronomy, when Moses retells this story, he adds that God asked him to place tablets into the ark. (Deut. 10:1-2). The verse is not clear which tablets are to be placed, the whole or the broken? The Talmud answers that Moses was asked to place them all — both the whole and the broken, the usable and the discarded. (T.B. Baba Batra 14b). The lesson becomes clear. Anything that is the work of God, especially the broken bits, is to be placed at the center. God throws nothing away, especially people.
The Torah knows that our spiritual lives cannot be formed by something that is just from “out there.” No teacher is simply a conveyor of information, telling students what is what. Teachers take the spirit of the student and grow them from the inside out. All the more so with the Teacher, who partners with each of us to grow in spirit. To build a world of God’s dreams and ours, we must learn to create, carve, and gather in everything the Divine has to offer. The second tablets are the best symbol of the Divine human partnership. They are the product of human imagination and creation, they are a sacred religion, a work of art with God’s signature attached. God says, “It’s good you broke the stones,” with a smile because now, with broken slag, a foundation for a better world can be built.
The Psalmist says, “The rock the masons reject we set as our foundation stone.” (Ps 118:22) Our moral heroes are broken people. Moses studders, Esther is an orphan, Ruth is a widow and a Moabite, Aaron is an idolater, Jacob betrays his father and his brother. Every one of them is a flawed, broken human being, but because they are the work of God, like you and me, they are brought to the center of our story. What others throw away like trash, we see as sacred fragments. “God raises the poor from the dust, lifting the needy from trash heap to the set them with the great ones of God’s people” (Psalm 113:7-8)
Sam died a few years ago. In the last years of his life he would come to the toddler service at Valley Beth Shalom every week. We would always honor him by taking out the Torah and placing it in his lap. He would cruise around the room followed by a parade of children as we sang about the Torah. Sam would sit in the center, as one by one families would come up and kiss the Torah, and he would smile. This is how to craft a better world: you take broken slag, and set upon it a palace of love with God smiling above.