Shoftim: Breakage

There comes a time in our lives where every one of us breaks. For some the breaking point comes early in our lives when we realize that we can’t float through school and have to study harder or get beat out for the soccer team. For some it comes a little later when we didn’t get into the school we wanted or the job we thought was ours. For some it’s that heart attack or cancer scare. Some feel the break violently when they are abused or sense their addiction.  There are so many breaking points in our lives, from simple disappointments to catastrophes, but the truth is that every one of us breaks.  

One of the most memorable breaks I felt was when I was quite young and an aspiring French horn player. I practiced every day for hours. I learned how to read music, to transpose, to adjust my embouchure (how your mouth fits onto the horn). I practiced so hard, I would sweat and my mouth would bleed. No matter how hard I practiced, I could never get the highest notes. My teacher showed me how to adjust and control my airflow, but that just made me light- headed and bleed more. After weeks of practice I finally hit those notes, and I was so very proud.  

A competition was coming up and I thought I was ready. I had practiced Mozart’s Horn Concerto #3 over and over again. I hired a piano player to accompany me. After weeks of practice, years really, I walked into the performance hall. So nervous all I could think of was that moment, about six minutes into the piece, where the horn solo takes off soaring. The music began, I played my guts out and when it came time to begin the solo, I blew it. I completely flubbed the notes and never got the high note in the middle. I was devastated. I barely finished the piece. The judges were kind (I was a kid after all) but still I got no medal, no trophy. From that day on I never rose above third chair, often relegated to playing the upbeats in Strauss’s marches or the bass pedals in Beethoven’s symphonies. Since then I’ve had many more breaks, and so this seems small in retrospect, but to my younger self it was everything. There was always going to be someone better, stronger, more musical than I was. It was one of the first times in my life where, “I just can’t do it” ran through my head. I wish I could say this was a story about endeavor and success, or one where I came back and won the competition, but my life is not a Hollywood story. I lost. I hurt. I was humbled. I was broken. 

If anything, the pandemic, now stretching towards the six-month mark, has broken many of us. From the millions of people who cannot leave home because they are immunocompromised, to the millions of people out of work, from the old to the young, from East to West, the world over, the virus, an entity with no will or brain, with no soul or aspiration, has humbled all of us. The canceled plans, the belly-up businesses, the grandchildren we cannot hold, the loss of life itself, these are breaks to our global soul. This pandemic, as far as I know, is the first time in all of human history where every one of us from Boston to Baghdad, from Capetown to Tarrytown, are experiencing collective breakage. 

There is a brief moment at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, that speaks to our collective breakage. Moses imagines for the people a time when someone was found murdered and lying in the open between two settlements. (Deut. 21:1) Normally, as when the Torah portion begins, when one person is murdered by another and the perpetrator is known, justice shall be sought and had at hands of the magistrates who hold trial and punish the murderer. (Deut. 16:18, see also Lev. 24:19) Here, a crime has happened and no reciprocal justice is available. The very system of justice set up by the Torah, the one that assures recompense, an “eye for an eye” –  breaks. With no assailant to be found, no guilt can be assigned, and yet a crime has happened, and a person’s life taken too soon.

It’s very easy for any person in this tragic moment to throw up their hands and say, “there is no justice.” It can feel very natural to look upon the loss of another human being and feel lost ourselves. The Hasidic Master, Mei HaShiloach, internalizes the feeling of breakage when he writes of this passage in the Torah. Pulling on Psalm 19:13, he writes, “who knows what guilt is when it remains unperceived? It’s possible that one has a fault in his heart, and feels broken, and is considered himself to be like the body found in the wilderness.” (ad locum) The Torah knows how we might all feel when reciprocity fails and in our hearts is the possibility of brokenness, and that when we look upon a tragic visage laid low by the unknown it could be, in fact, any one of us. 

With broken hearts, Moses in the Torah leads us to atonement and repair. According to the text, the community closest to the body shall come out in force, it shall pick up the slain, wash the body and bury him. Then an offering is to be made, in the wabash with flowing water, and blessing recited, so as to atone for the great guilt of letting this poor person die so close to their town. (Deut. 21:2-9) In this case, the communal guilt is removed, but not the communal responsibility. 

To repair our collective breakage in this moment of pandemic is not to make the world whole again. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, and those that are surviving  – our lives are forever changed. When a fine tapestry is torn, it can be mended but the stitches used to pull the fabric back together will be seen. So too, when the firmament itself cracks and our foundations fall away, we can rebuild, we can atone, but the scars of this time in our lives will last forever. This moment in our global life will pass, the scars will fade if we respond as the Israelites did, by taking responsibility for each other, by making amends where we can, and bless the new world that will emerge, scars and all, and do what is right in the eyes of the Universe. 

Shabbat Shalom

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