Once the Baal Shem Tov commanded Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret meanings behind the blasts of the ram's-horn, because Rabbi Zev was to be his caller on Rosh Ha-Shanah. So Rabbi Zev learned the secret meanings and wrote them down on a slip of paper to look at during the service, and laid the slip of paper in his bosom. When the time came for the blowing of the ram’s-horn, he began to search everywhere for the slip of paper, but it was gone; and he did not know on what meanings to concentrate. He was greatly saddened. Broken-hearted, he wept bitter tears, and called the blasts of the ram's-horn without concentrating on the secret meanings behind them.
Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: "Lo, in the habitation of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock, but the master key of all is the axe, whith which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So it is with the ram's-horn: the secret meanings are the keys; every gate has another meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a man truthfully breaks his heart before God, he can enter into all the gates of the apartments of the King above all Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He." (-- Or Yesharim)
It's the beginning of the month of Elul, a time the sages set aside for contemplation and cheshbon ha-nefesh, taking an accounting of one's soul, in advance of the Days of Awe. This is the time the tradition offers us for doing spiritual work: reflecting on the year soon ending, paying attention to who we are and who we mean to be and where we might have fallen short in becoming the people we aspire to become.
The Hasidic story at the top of this post is a story for this time of year not only because it makes reference to blowing the shofar during the Days of Awe, but because it is about the kind of closeness to our Source that is possible through brokenheartedness.
It's easy to hold ourselves to impossible standards. To lose the slips of paper on which we've written the truths we swear we intend to remember, as Rabbi Zev Kitzes does in this parable. But the Baal Shem Tov reminds us that while esoteric teachings may open some of the gates of heaven, the master key is our own broken hearts. That our places of brokenness, the ways in which we are not fully whole, shatter the boundaries that otherwise keep us from connection with our Source.
I woke this morning to the news that poet Liam Rector has taken his own life. (His poem The Remarkable Objectivity Of Your Old Friends rings differently now than it ever did before.) I never knew him well, but I admired his strength and his wordcraft. Clearly he was suffering, and I believe he has found peace. Still, the news makes this Hasidic parable -- which I had meant to blog about today anyway; I'll be sharing it with my congregation during Torah study this Shabbat -- resonate in new ways.
Baruch dayan emet. To the extent that we all have broken hearts, each in our own ways, may our places of brokenness offer us direct access to the source of comfort, and may God be with all who mourn.