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Rabbi Bennaroch on the Significance of Brokenness

by Penny Jones Square, November 24, 2022

[Editor's note: The Global Day of Jewish Learning is a co-sponsored event between the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and Limmud Winnipeg. Florencia Katz is both the Limmud Coordinator as well as the Education and Engagement Director at the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg ]

When God created the world, He provided an opportunity for the work of His hands—man—to participate in His creation. The Creator, as it were, impaired reality in order that mortal man could repair its flaws and perfect it. —Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man

“Abraham rose from his grief.” (Genesis 23:3) Abraham did not wait for God to act [when he was overcome with grief at the loss of his beloved Sarah]. He understood one of the profoundest truths of Judaism: that God is waiting for us to act. —Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l, “A Call from the Future: Chayei Sarah”

On the 13th annual Global Day of Jewish Learning, November 13, 2022, Jews “on six continents around the world” from “across the spectrum of beliefs and backgrounds” will congregate in various settings from public synagogues to private homes to dedicate themselves to study and learning, with the aim of discovering “new insights and appreciation for the study of Jewish texts” (Rabbi David Singer, Limmud North America). The theme of “Rebuilding” was chosen for this year’s learning in light of the “ever-present realities of turmoil” in the present moment in hopes “our educators will guide us through how Jewish tradition approaches the moments after destruction, change, and devastation” and show us how to rebuild.

Limmud Winnipeg hosted its Global Day of Jewish Learning at the home of Faye Rosenberg Cohen with 28 people participating in the event. Limmud North America provided the full curriculum of 6 units with accompanying texts, each relating to the theme of rebuilding/repairing. The program was created by educators from the US and funded by The Covenant Foundation. Patti Cohen, a long-time volunteer for Limmud Winnipeg, reviewed the curriculum and chose the units to be discussed as well as the facilitators who would lead the sessions. The two units chosen were: “Rebuilding After the Loss of a Loved One,” developed by Hannan Harchol (a New York based teacher, filmmaker, animator, artist, and classical guitarist), to be led by Rabbi Yosef Benarroch, and “Picking Up, Dusting Off, and Bouncing Back,” developed by Sandra Lilienthal (a South Florida based Jewish educator and author of the newly created Melton curriculum), to be led by Rabbi Kliel Rose.

Rabbi Benarroch’s session on rebuilding after loss focused on the first part of the unit, “The Significance of ‘Brokenness.’” He engaged the 18 participants with ease, inspiring a lively, informal discussion by inviting the enthusiastic participants to contribute their comments on his interpretations of and questions on the opening text—a quotation from To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l:

[T]he world is a broken place, literally a broken vessel, and our human task is to put those fragments together—to repair the brokenness.

Rabbi Sacks is here suggesting that humanity’s task of repairing the world is predicated on the world’s “brokenness,” that brokenness is therefore necessary for humans to respond to the call to work to redeem the world as it is, drawing it into closer alignment with the world as it ought to be.

The 50 minutes allotted for the session was not long enough to consider the concept of brokenness in all its complexity, so we, unfortunately, did not get beyond Rabbi Sacks’ text to the one from the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 14b, which teaches that the broken pieces of the original tablets were placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the second set, another suggestion of the necessity of brokenness. Nor did we get to the texts for the other 2 parts of the unit on “Finding Hope and (Re-)Connection” and “Life After Loss.” However, comments by Rabbi Benarroch and participants did touch on these subjects. Rabbi Benarroch’s remark at the beginning of the session was thus clearly correct: “This could be a year-long course.”

Rabbi Benarroch pointed out that the first question posed by the author Harchol regarding Sacks’ text—“Why would God create a broken vessel?”—assumes that God purposefully created a broken world. As one participant put it, there is “intentionality” in the world’s brokenness. Rabbi Benarroch elaborated on this, contending that God created a situation in which Adam and Eve “could not pass the test”: “the fail was built into the creation story.” For God placed the Tree of Knowledge, of which they were not to taste, in the very center of the garden, not hidden away in some corner of the garden, so they would be tempted every day. According to Rabbi Benarroch, this shows God wanted them to fail, so they would have a purpose in perfecting an imperfect world, which is not unlike Rabbi Sacks’ claim that God created a “broken vessel” so humans would have a calling to repair it.

Rabbi Benarroch further explained that in Kabbalah, the world is a vessel into which God injected too much light, causing it to break. But as God created the vessel, He would have known how much light it could hold; therefore, there is intentionality here as well—God deliberately put too much light into the vessel. What this means is God built imperfection into the world, for it is humanity’s task to fix what is broken, to gather the fragments of light together again. For, as Rabbi Benarroch said, quoting Rav Kook, “The most perfect thing God created is imperfection.” Imperfection means humanity has something to work on. God wants humans to be co-creators with him.

Rabbi Benarroch shared his insight that ki tov (“It was good”) is repeated throughout the creation story except after the creation of Adam and Eve (and after the separation of the upper and lower firmaments, which introduced the possibility of difference and conflict), suggesting that everything else was created in its final state; only humans have to earn their ki tov. We can fall but also rise by virtue of that fall. And that requires humans exercise the free will that was given them by falling, by having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. Again, rebuilding is predicated upon brokenness, and repairing is humanity’s calling.

Rabbi Benarroch told the story of a king who cherished his beautiful diamond excessively, looking at it every day until one day he dropped it, and it was scratched. The king is saddened by his precious jewel’s imperfection and puts out an announcement promising to reward who ever can fix it. An old man comes and draws a rose on the diamond with the scratch as its stem, thus showing life is always broken, but “we need faith to draw a rose around it.”

A further significance of brokenness, according to Rabbi Benarroch, is that “we are also rebuilding ourselves” as we rebuild anything in the world. He clarified by explaining how Yom Kippur is about fixing. It is “God’s greatest vote of confidence in humanity.” God knows that humans are not perfect, but also that by doing teshuvah, they can work to perfect themselves and become stronger.

The ability of the Jewish people to “always bounce back” even though they have always had “heavy-weight enemies” is evidence of Jewish resilience, and what allows for their remarkable resilience, according to Rabbi Benarroch, is the stories they tell that shape them. Three thousand five hundred years of stories of struggle and victory over impossible odds have instilled in the Jewish people a firm faith in “never giving up,” in hope and perseverance. Jews have endured despite countless attempts to conquer and annihilate them (“Jerusalem was conquered 19 times”), emerging even from the Shoah stronger than ever. “We are our stories,” as Rabbi Benarroch put it. And it is a distinctly Jewish trait to rise up from loss and brokenness and with hope and faith continue the task of repairing what is broken in the world.

Recovery and rebuilding after loss seem to require, then, an acknowledgment of the necessity of darkness or brokenness. As Leonard Cohen puts it in Anthem, “Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” It is the experience of loss that carves an empty place for the entry of God, for hope and faith. The experience also, as Dr. Erica Brown (in a text from Part III) describes it, “make[s] us more whole as human beings” and “expand[s] our range of consciousness and compassion.” “When we acknowledge that we are broken, we enter a universe where we are not measured by perfection but by our willingness to repair ourselves and the world.” As a number of participants also commented, nothing remains the same, and life is irrevocably changed after loss, but what is re-built from the ruins may have a different and deeper meaning.

The author Harchol wrote that the experience of loss can have “a transformative power, providing an opportunity to rebuild a ‘new’ life that is informed by one’s life before the loss, as well as by the loss itself.” This insight offers a measure of consolation to those left bereft and forsaken after the loss of a loved one. The pieces of the broken heart, like the pieces of the broken tablets and the broken shards of the vessel, must be contained, incorporated into the new self that emerges from the darkness of grief.

The feedback that Florencia Katz, Coordinator of Limmud Winnipeg, received following the event was positive and appreciative of the sessions and of the rabbis’ teaching, with many participants expressing a desire for longer and more regular opportunities for Jewish learning outside this annual celebration. The value of this exploration of brokenness, loss, and change was invaluable to me, having lost my husband 15 months ago after sharing a life for 55 years. A personal thank you, then, to Limmud Winnipeg for this celebration of study and to Rabbi Yosef Benarroch for the learning he provided.





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