When Moses was coming down the mountain, carrying the two tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments that he had received from God, he saw the people dancing around the golden calf. And when he saw this, Moses took these two tablets, these holy objects, and he smashed them.
There are many different commentaries in the midrash on why he smashed them. One says that because of the sin of the golden calf — the letters flew off the tablets, and that, when there were no letters on the tablets, they became too heavy to bear — Moses could not sustain his strength when the tablets lost their purpose! So he did not smash them — he dropped them.
Another midrash says that when Moses saw the people worshipping an idol, directly violating the second of the ten commandments, he broke the tablets, because he figured — you cannot be held liable for violating a law that you did not yet know about— that had not yet been established. By breaking the tablets instead of telling the people what was written on them, Moses was protecting the people from being found guilty.
Another great midrash asks a very simple question: What happened to these broken pieces of tablet? Were they simply swept up by some janitor and thrown away? Were they picked up and put in a trash can?
The answer of the midrash is that Moses went back up to the top of Mount Sinai, and stayed there with God for another forty days and nights, and came back with a second set of tablets. And these tablets were put into the Holy Ark. And then it says: “Luchot, vishivrey luchot munachim ba’aron”. Both sets of tablets, the second set and the fragments of the first set were put into the Ark.
Why did the Israelites do that? If you had a perfect set, why would you need to keep the broken set as well? And why would you put it in the Ark, right next to the second, new, shiny set?
The answer of the midrash is: “In order to teach you that broken people, that people who once knew the Torah but who have lost their memories and no longer know anything, are to be treated with respect, even in their broken state.” People, who are holy, remain holy, even when they have Dementia, or Alzheimer’s — even when they no longer know who you are, even when they no longer know who THEY are.
A friend of mine had a different take on the broken tablets. He said that the broken tablets are like the glass that we break at a wedding. The Jewish people were about to begin their intense relationship with God — which many rabbis have likened to a marriage — but just as we are reminded at a regular Jewish wedding that a relationship is fragile—that bad things happen and even on our happiest day we remember the destruction of the Temple — so too on the day when we agreed on a relationship with God — we were reminded how easy it is to let the relationship break.
I was especially moved by these thoughts because after 50 years of marriage, my parents are having a difficult time deciding if they want to continue being married. It may just be weariness, or it may be the beginning of slight dementia on my mother’s part. I’m doing my best to just be there for both of them — and not to listen too much about their complaints about the other one. They seem to have lost the sense of the other being broken — but still holy.
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, and I am reminded of the fact that we often hear talk about people having found their soul mate. I read an article by a colleague of mine, Rabi Irwin Kula who argues that we don’t find our soul mate – we co-create our soul mate. Soul mate is a verb hiding out as a noun, and over the course of our relationship we engage in soul-mating.
It turns out that the initial reasons we fall in love are not the reasons we stay in love, as the first phase of love is about self-affirmation – narcissism. But soon enough we discover each other’s differences, flaws and weaknesses and that’s when our love becomes intentional, intimacy begins, and we start to “soul mate”.
Only at the end of our relationship, after we have successfully helped each other to seek the truth about ourselves and to become the best people we can be, do we actually know whether we have found our soul mate.
When we say, “we found our soul mate,” or our perfect match, we are not expressing a fact but an aspiration – a yearning – because the truth about love is its uncertainty, vulnerability, and fragility.
Rabbi Kula says — and it’s worth saying slowly — that the paradox of love, is that the fantasy of permanence we imagine, and try to create, erodes the security of the very passion and romance for which we yearn.
It is precisely the impermanence and uncertainty of love that generates our longing and desire for greater intimacy. When a glass is shattered under the chuppa (the marriage canopy), we are inviting fragility and vulnerability right into the moment we make our “unbreakable” commitment. We feel most attracted and in love, and passionate, when we know it might not last.
Intimacy, passion, romance – soul mating – is learning the risky dance between closeness and distance, happiness and disappointment, gratitude and resentment, loyalty and betrayal, control and surrender, spontaneity and boredom, trust and doubt, tenderness and aggression.
If we want Valentine’s Day to really work we have to do more than give our loved ones roses. We have to hold the thorns: the insecurity of love. We need to embrace the sacred messiness of love.
Let me finish with a story. A friend of mine says that he overheard this conversation in a doctor’s waiting room. A man came up to the window, and said to the secretary that he knew that the doctor was falling behind, but could she do something to help him get his appointment on time.
The man explained why he was in a hurry. He said to her, “My wife has Alzheimer’s, and she is in Assisted Living, and I have to get there by noon so that I can feed her her lunch.”
The secretary said she would try her best to get him in as soon as she could, but she said to him, “Why do you have to rush to get there on time? If she has Alzheimer’s, she probably doesn’t even know who you are?”
To which the man answered, “That’s true, but I know who I am, and I know who she is, and therefore I have to get there on time.”
I wish my parents great strength and wisdom as they struggle to discover and re-discover who they are — and us as well, in our relationships to each other and to God.
Shabbat Shalom. Rabbi Paul Arberman