Sermon: Kol Nidre – Coating our broken hearts with gold

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 30 September 2020

When Japanese military commander, Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke one of his beloved Chinese tea bowls he found himself in a state of despair. He took it to a repair shop and left disappointed, as his beloved tea bowl returned to him stapled back together. The metal pins were unsightly, and his bowl no longer resembled that which he loved. He urged the local craftsman to come up with a more aesthetically pleasing method of repair. They took his bowl, and filled each crack with a golden lacquer making the bowl even more unique and valuable. Thus the 500 year old art form of Kintsugi was born. Broken pots were no longer thrown away, but became more exquisite with every repair. Each crack, every join, spoke the story of the object’s history.


In Jewish tradition, we also believe in the beauty and necessity of broken vessels. The medieval kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Tzfat, teaches that when the world was first created at the very beginning of time, God’s presence filled the entire universe. In order to make room for human life, God drew breath, contracting from the world and creating darkness. God knew the world needed light, so God said, ‘Let there be light’, triggering the sending of ten holy vessels from the heavens, each filled with Divine light.


According to this teaching, if these vessels had arrived on earth intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were fragile, unable to carry the intensity of the burden, and broke, shattering and scattering sparks of divine light everywhere.


These sparks of divine light are not easy, to find – just like the vessels they came in, they are hidden in the most broken of places and the most shattered of people. It is our job as humankind to recognise these slivers of divine light around the world, to find them within others and within ourselves.


Rabbi Isaac Luria’s theory of Shevirat Ha’Kelim, broken vessels, shows us that right from the very beginning of our world, at the very heart of creation, we were broken and shattered. From this moment, brokenness has been part of the fabric of life, and has carried great significance in our Judaism.


Tonight, we are at our most vulnerable, laid bare in front of God, faced with our frailty. Kol Nidre offers us the opportunity to reflect on the year that has passed. We stood last year, full of hope, eager to see what the new year would bring. The anticipation of a year of potential wills us to over promise, to aspire to be something we may not be able to be. Then, over time our outlook changes, we realise time is not on our side, that our desperation is no match to circumstance.


Yet, even the most pessimistic did not expect this, an empty room, a screen, an expanse of space where there is normally a sea of bodies.


We return to the haunting melodies of last year, echoing off the sides of a vacant space. The Kol Nidre holds up a mirror to us, giving us a moment to look honestly at who we have become. This year for many a different person looks back, perhaps a person surrounded by walls, perhaps a masked face with their eyes set a little deeper, carrying the trauma of loss. The person staring back at us may not be hopeful, but fearful. Anxious about the new normal that lies ahead, anticipating the isolation that comes with the winter, the possibility of time standing still.


As we heard Kol Nidre, we plead with God for forgiveness, we beg to be freed from the guilt we carry from not achieving all the expectations that we had placed upon ourselves. We ask for respite in our brokenness.


God forgives us. Then we, made in God’s image and carrying slivers of divine light, must also forgive ourselves.


This is no easy task, we are often our most harsh critics. We reprimand in ourselves, things we would accept in others. We try to disguise the broken parts of ourselves, airbrushing our lives, presenting only our most polished selves to the world. Yet Midrash Leviticus Rabbah teaches us, “As human beings, we are often ashamed to use imperfect vessels.  Not so with the Holy Blessed One.  We are all broken, and we are all God’s vessels.”


We come from a tradition with brokenness at its heart. From the first moment that we became a united people, bound by the common guidelines of the 10 commandments, our Judaism centred around the Aron Ha’Kodesh, the holy ark designated to carrying the tablets of stone.  Midrash teaches that following the shattering of the first set of tablets, the shards were not discarded, buried in the ritual tradition. Rather the broken pieces of the tablets remain in the Aron HaKodesh with the intact tablets. The Israelites carried them with them on their journey, taking them eventually to the Promised Land.


The ark, the heart of the people, becomes a symbol of our human heart. It carries brokenness and wholeness together, side by side. So too, for us. Just because we feel broken in a moment, doesn’t mean we are broken. We have an incredible power and ability. We are able to carry loss, sadness and imperfection and still see moments of joy, still make our impact on the world.


Like the shattered tablets, we should not bury the broken parts of ourselves. Like the Aron Ha’Kodesh, we carry brokenness with us and we know that brokenness and wholeness coexist side by side.


As Menachem Mendl of Kotzk said, “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.”


It is with a broken heart that we step into the year 5781, facing this year holding the tension between the adventure of the soul and the exhaustion of the spirit more so than we ever did before.


Yet, even though we are apart, we share this common experience, we hold one another. We stood together as we heard the calls of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, as they gave us hope for the year ahead.


A Hasidic teachings suggest that the shofar offers us a model of viewing our lives. The first Tekiah sounds, we are born whole. As we enter the world, we strive to live perfect lives, to find completeness.

Then we hear Shevarim Teruah, the broken blasts of our Shofar calls. Along the journey of life we face bumps in the road. Our lives become filled with errors, mistakes, imperfections. We are left feeling shever, broken. At times we feel shattered.

Then, with the final Tekiah Gedolah that we will hear tomorrow night, we see hope. A long complete blast, we know that we can learn from our mistakes, we can heal, we can emerge whole again.


The shofar offers us a pattern of wholeness, brokenness, and wholeness again. It gives us the knowledge that life is a cycle, that however we feel in each moment, it is just one part of an ever-continuing rhythm. We know that this phase, however gruelling, will strengthen us and in time we will be whole once again. We are given hope that we can endure.


So, now we are in a time of survival. As the light at the end of the tunnel draws further away and restrictions compound, it is more important than ever to do tikkun atzmi, healing of the self. This year we need to be kind to ourselves, compassionate to our needs.


We need to embrace the broken parts of ourselves, knowing that they will eventually make us whole. We need to search for the divine light within ourselves, knowing that others will be unable to find it, if we are not willing to see it first. We need to know that in order to practice areivut – responsibility for the other which Rabbi Josh will speak of more tomorrow, we first need to take responsibility for ourselves.


This year, may we work together to heal our broken vessels, hoping not that they are stapled together, with no recognition of the growth and trials, but instead that they are gilded with gold. That each crack in our frames, each broken shard, tells our story. That we feel able to embrace the hard moments and celebrate the good. Knowing that each moment of brokenness is part of a cycle, that will inevitably lead us to completion.


In the words of Rabbi Karyn Keder, this year we pray:

God, thank You for helping me see

That each phase of my life is perfect

That I have arrived,

That I’ve always been where I need to be

Living perfect moments…

With Your help, I relinquish my need to judge.

Embrace my heart as it beats, even as it bleeds.

Help me grow with love, acceptance and curiosity.

Thank You for lighting my way.

For gently illuminating a path in the darkness…

Let it now be and always be

Yet another exquisite phase.

For the crimes against myself, I am sorry.

For all my slips and slides, I forgive myself.