Broken and Whole

Victor Frenkel the great Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor is often asked why he didn’t flee while he had the chance once Hitler occupied Austria.

He explains that although he had a visa to flee to the USA, he was wrestling with the dilemma of abandoning his aging parents who weren’t able to travel with him.

One day he saw a broken shard of marble on the table at his family home. His father told him that when the national socialists burned down the largest Viennese synagogue, he had taken this piece from amongst the rubble because he noticed it was from the ten commandments that had been  part of the building façade.

One gilded letter was on the shard of marble referencing one of the ten commandments. Which of the ten was it referencing? Honour your father and mother so that you may live a long life on this earth. It was from this “little sign” that Victor Frankl decided to remain in Austria with his parents and the rest is history. He was taken to the concentration camps where he developed a therapy and therapeutic approach that saved the lives of countless people in the concentration camps.

Sometimes it is the broken shards of the law that teach us the most important lessons in life.

Our tradition teaches us that the Holy of Holies section of the ancient temple in Jerusalem housed the ark of the covenant with the stones of the ten commandments. To which set of ten commandments are we referring ?

We know that when Moses descended the mountain and found the Israelites sinning with the golden calf he threw the two tablets with the ten commandments to the ground and shattered them. The midrash offers this dramatic vision of the shattered stones lying on the ground and the Hebrew letters flying upwards to heaven. 

At that point G-d was pretty much thinking this whole Divine revelation to a chosen people was a bit ill conceived. He suggested un-choosing the Israelites but Moshe rejected this suggestion and prayed for their forgiveness and another 40 days later received a second set of tablets that remained whole and carried the words of the law for posterity.

Here’s where it gets interesting: The Talmud says that  it was both the whole tablets and the broken tablets that were kept in the ark of the holy of holies in the temple.

This is quite shocking! 

The broken tablets were the evidence of a people who turned against G-d at precisely the moment that they made their commitment to being faithful people. Or as the Talmud rather colourfully puts it  – as a spouse desecrating the marriage covenant whilst still under the wedding canopy.

What possible benefit is there in keeping these broken tablets, a remnant of a disgraceful episode in our history and keeping them in the holiest location of all.

There are many explanations to this formidable question. Some relate this notion to the psychology of life where we carry our broken experiences alongside our whole ones.

Yet an even more profound explanation relates to the relationship between a fallible human and a perfect law.

Moses descended the mountain with great hope and fanfare celebrating the monumental occasion of delivering the law to the people holding tablets stating ten of the most critical commandments. Lo and behold he finds the people desecrating the very first two commands on the tablets.

I can almost picture Moses looking up at the frenzied scene in front of him of the people worshipping a golden calf and then back down at the tablets that explicitly forbid this. Looking at the people; back at the tablets and thinking well this isn’t gonna work…

At that point Moshe, our leader and teacher, had a stunning and simple choice. Something has to go; the people or the law. 

And Moshe, spontaneously and instinctively, cast down the law shattering it into pieces.

And the people endured.

He chose the people over the law. Not because the law isn’t important or holy, it certainly is, but because no matter how valuable the teachings or law is, it is worthless without the people to bear its teachings and practice its principles. 

This might sound controversial but the tablets and indeed the Torah despite being filled with sanctity and life changing ideas, is an inanimate object containing abstract ideas. 

It is the practice of these ideas by humankind that gives the Torah its true meaning and life. If (and when) we fail there is no other choice but to reboot and start again. 

In the final words of the entire Torah, Moshe is regaled for the acts and decisions he made before ‘’the eyes of all Israel.” Rashi,  the most famous 11th Century Torah scholar, comments that the final words of the Torah are alluding to Moshe’s greatest act – the shattering of the tablets. 

This is Moshe’s greatest act? The final word on Moses? The final message of the whole Torah? The greatest prophet who threw G-ds word to the ground and shattered the law!

Every year we commemorate the day of the giving of the Torah on the 6th of Sivan and then 40 days later we commemorate the destruction of the tablets on the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz.

It is a sad day because it teaches us of the fallibility of human decision making but it is also a hallowed day because from within the broken shards Moshe taught us his greatest lesson of all.

A body of laws and ideas needs living – even if fallible – practitioners to bring its words to life. 

One day on the eve of the festival of the giving of the Torah, someone walked into the shul and gifted me with a broken folio of torah she had found in an antique shop in rural Morocco. Perhaps serendipitously the section she gave me was precisely the description of the festival we would commemorate that night. The giving of Torah and the ten commandments.

I looked at this broken piece of the Torah and was reminded of the shattered stones of Moses that rested in the holy of holies. 

Our responsibility is to be the living bearers and practitioners of the law.  We carry it. We teach it. We practice it. We give it its life as it gives us our life.

Speaking of those who bear the law with such distinction I want to acknowledge all of you who come in every year for this service and for the work that you do throughout the year. This year we pay special homage to Justice Weinberg as he comes to the conclusion of this phase of his career for bearing and applying the law with such integrity.

I also just wish to say a personal thank you to Justice Kaye on behalf of our shul and the entire community for without your enthusiasm and encouragement this important service may well have faded. 

Every year I receive a thank you with the Supreme Courts letterhead and before I open it I’m always certain that some of the unsavoury actions of my troubled youth have finally caught up with me, but no they are a most dignified and heartfelt letter of thanks from Justice Kaye for hosting the legal year service. You deserve our appreciation for bearing the spirit and the practice of our law with dignity and integrity. And thank you to Raph, Ruth, Bronwyn, Sam, Didi, Adam, Danny and Paul and all who contribute to this service.

I wish you all a successful year in your most hallowed role of being at the forefront of those who are the living bearers and practitioners of the law in our community.