Brokenness and purity: more thoughts on Shemini
March 28, 2008
If you read Vessel, the poem I wrote arising out of this week's Torah portion, you know that Lev. 11:33 caught my attention this week. That's the verse about how if any animal which is tamei (like a mouse or lizard or other creepy-crawly) falls into an earthen vessel, the vessel and its contents become tamei, and the vessel must be broken.
That verse takes me, through a kind of mental hyperlink, to Mishnah Kelim 2:1:
Vessels of wood, vessels of leather, vessels of bone or vessels of glass that are flat are clean. And those that form a receptacle are unclean. If they were broken they become clean again. If one remade them into vessels they are susceptible to uncleanness henceforth. Earthen vessels and vessels of alum-crystals are on a par in respect of uncleanness: they contract and convey uncleanness through their air-spaces, they contract uncleanness through their concave bottoms but not through their backs, and when broken they become clean.
The obsession with tahor and tamei, "pure" and "impure" (or, as my teacher Reb Judith Abrams prefers, "susceptible to ritual impurity" and "not susceptible to ritual impurity"), can be distancing for modern liberal Jews. My advice is, don't fixate on the details of how various kinds of vessels become tahor or tamei. It's the last line of that quote that interests me: "when broken they become clean."
Maimonides, a.k.a. the Rambam, expands that line a little bit:
It is said that breaking is purification (or: to be broken is to be purified.) So that earthen vessels that have become tamei cannot become tahor through immersion in a mikvah ... they are tamei until they're broken. This is speaking in the language of Torah; everything that is in the vessel becomes impure, and you shall break it.
Talk of brokenness connects me -- another mental hyperlink! -- to a teaching about the broken tablets. Remember that Moshe brought a first set of tablets down from Sinai, but when he encountered the people dancing around the egel zahav, the Golden Calf, he shattered them. In the Talmud (Bava Basra 14a) we read that "The whole tablets and the broken tablets were both kept inside the Ark of the Covenant."
Why did the children of Israel save the shards of the broken tablets? Why not destroy them, or leave them behind in the desert? Surely no one there wanted to keep them as mementos of one of the community's strongest lapses of faith? But the tradition teaches us that the broken tablets were preserved as a sign that holiness persists even in our brokenness. Sometimes our brokenness, our mistakes, are what we have to offer to God...and that's worthy of preservation along with the aspects of us which are whole.
A further leap from that teaching is the teaching that we must treat our elders with love and respect, even those who have lost their awareness and can no longer teach their wisdom, because the broken tablets were cherished along with the whole. And, of course, there's the beautiful Hasidic teaching -- attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk -- that "there is nothing more whole than a broken heart."
All of this in turn reminds of the parable of the Chinese woman with the two pots of water -- how the broken pot was the one which actually yielded the path full of wildflowers. Blessings can arise through our brokenness -- and maybe when we acknowledge that we're always already a little bit broken, that's how we become spiritually tahor, attuned to the deep purity that's always within.
Credit where it's due: many of the teachings in this post were drawn from the course I took on middot last summer. For the parable of the woman with the two pots of water, I owe gratitude to Broken, a post at Shirat Devorah.