Living with the Broken Tablets

Posted on September 15, 2019 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

The High Holy Days span the period of forty days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur. According to our tradition, this corresponds to the forty days Moses spent atop Mount Sinai receiving the second set of Tablets.

Little has been passed down to us about what was happening down below among the people while Moses communed with God on high, but we can imagine. They had committed a most egregious sin by making and worshiping a golden calf and suffered dire consequences. Theirs was a state of brokenness powerfully symbolized by the fragments of the original Tablets Moses smashed.

Each year during these forty days, we are called to relive the experience of dwelling with those broken Tablets and see them as a symbol of our own failings, our shortcomings, and wounds. It is important that we do this — that we live with and reflect seriously upon our own brokenness — not to bring ourselves down, but in order to lift ourselves up.

We can do this by engaging in the process of cheshbonnefesh, by taking account of the state of our souls and our ways in the world. And as we do, it is helpful to remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Yom Kippur will come, with its promise of forgiveness and renewal. Just as God called Moses to ascend the mountain to receive a second set of Tablets, there is hope at hand for us. God’s love is ever present, and, as with our ancestors, our slate will be wiped clean.

But it is not sufficient merely to wait for Yom Kippur to come. Like the second set of Tablets, the forgiveness and pardon we receive from God, and, hopefully, from one another, will do us little good if we do not receive them with a new heart and a renewed spirit. That we must accomplish through the work of teshuvah, of repentance and repair.

Yet some may feel so broken that it is hard for them to imagine the possibility of mending their fractured souls. Like the glass that is broken under the chuppah at a wedding, some feel that they will never find wholeness again. But what is true of shattered glass need not be true of souls. The neshama can find healing, and even more, if we will it and are prepared to work at it. We can transform our challenges and failures into some of our greatest strengths. This is akin to the biological truth that after a bone heals from a fracture, the place where it broke becomes stronger than it was before. As Ernest Hemingway put it, “Life breaks us all, but some of us become stronger in the broken places.”

My friend and teacher, Larry Dressler, offers us a beautiful metaphor for the possibility of healing from the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi, which is dedicated to repairing broken ceramics by filling in the cracks with gold. “Once the repair is complete,” he writes, “the ‘brokenness’ of the item — its defects — become its source of beauty and resilience.” We can, he says, “transform personal hardship into gold.”

Maybe this is why we call these forty days the yamim noraim, the Days of Awe. What an awesome and wondrous gift is this opportunity to achieve the kind of transformation that begins with acknowledging our brokenness and then sets about reassembling the pieces into a thing of beauty. We can do this for ourselves, and we can help each other to find wholeness if we are willing to spend these days living with the broken Tablets of our lives. This possibility is a sign of divine grace. The commitment to realize it is a gift of love we can give ourselves and one another.

L’shanah tovah! May we all be blessed to find healing and wholeness in these Days of Awe and throughout the New Year.


Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

Originally published in the September-October 2019 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.