Sermon: Shavuot Morning

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 18 May 2021

I don’t know if it’s just since lockdown but, or and, I’ve become a fan of BBC4’s The Repair Shop. People bring family memorabilia to a team of skilled craftsmen and women. Often the objects have little or no aesthetic value, while time, neglect and mistreatment have left them in poor condition. But they invariably have a good backstory, and an intrinsic emotional value for that person. The experts do their magic but, interestingly, they don’t restore the object to what it must have been like when new but to how the person remembers it having been.

Unlike the Antiques Roadshow the interest is not in the monetary value of the object; and unlike the Antiques Roadshow, the ‘reveal’ in The Repair Shop almost always reduces the person – and often the viewer – to tears. Those tears obviously show the emotional valence attached to that object.

Kintsugi – the word means ‘golden repair’ – is a centuries-old Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold bonding. Whereas the art of most restoration is to conceal defects, kintsugi makes those defects very visible, on the interesting premise, I presume, that the breaks are part of the object’s history.

Neither Repair Shop nor kintsugi existed to do something with the broken fragments of the 1st set of Commandments that Moses smashed when he saw the Golden Calf. Indeed they totally disappear from the narrative. They were, surely, just as valuable as the 2nd replacement set. Broken or not, they were still in some way God’s word. Yet of those broken fragments, nothing more is heard in the Torah.

Maybe they disappear from history because they would have been too powerful a reminder of the Golden Calf, a shameful episode in our past. Yet Judaism is usually more realistic, more warts-and-all, about things. Biblical ‘heroes,’ for example, aren’t portrayed as supermen and superwomen. We see them in all their grandeur – and in all their human frailty and weakness.

While the Torah might be silent about the fate of those broken tablets, subsequent Jewish tradition is not.

Rabbi Judah bar Ilai taught: two arks journeyed with the Israelites in the desert. One in which the Torah was kept and one in which Moses put the broken tablets. The Ark with the Torah went into the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting; the other, with the broken tablets, simply accompanied the people on their journey. The pieces were important enough not simply to leave behind – but not quite important enough to be kept in the ‘main’ ark, as it were, the one in the Mishkan.

One midrash picks up on the particular word used to describe Moses throwing the tablets to the ground. Lakol z’man v’eyt “For everything there is a season and every purpose under heaven has its time. A time for birth and a time for death…. a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones (Ecclesiastes 3:1ff) The word for ‘throwing’ l’hash’lich is the same as the word used for Moses throwing down the tablets. That is enough of a peg for midrash to connect throwing away stones in Ecclesiastes and Moses throwing down the tablets on the mountain. (Exodus Rabbah 46:2)

This midrash then picks up on God telling Moses, p’sol l’cha “Carve two tablets of stone like the first ones” (Exodus 34:1) In his translation, Robert Alter grapples with the word l’cha in p’sol l’cha. It means ‘to you,’ or ‘for you.’ Most translations ignore the l’cha. But Alter’s reads: “Carve you two tablets of stone like the first.” Maybe he was familiar with Rashi’s comment on that l’cha, for Rashi comments, rather wryly: “God says to Moses, ‘You smashed the first lot, you, you can carve the second set!’”

If I were to ask you ‘what were the tablets made of?’ you would, I imagine, say that that they were made of stone. How do we know that? From Cecil B deMille and Charlton Heston and also from Michaelangelo, Rembrandt, Gustave Doré and Marc Chagall, to name just a few, all depicting them like that.

Yet a close reading of the Torah suggests that they were actually made from sapphire. So Rashi, commenting on p’sol l’cha, cites older midrashic traditions, and connects p’sol to p’solet ‘fragments,’ ‘small pieces,’ and has God saying to Moses, p’sol “the fragments, the chips,” l’cha “they’re for you.”

The midrashic justification is nice. The Torah describes how, just before the Israelites left Egypt, the Egyptians let the Israelites take whatever spoil they wanted. (Exodus 12:36) So they took Egyptian gold and silver that, later on, was used for making the Golden Calf. And what was Moses doing in the meantime? He was exhuming Joseph’s remains to return them to the Promised Land. For such an act of holy fidelity, he deserved some reward. Hence p’sol l’cha, “the fragments are for you.” With divine permission, Moses keeps the fragments, those sapphires, for himself. (Exodus Rabba 46:2)

And a third rabbinic comment on those fragments: “Rav Yosef taught that the tablets and the pieces of the broken tablets were placed in the Ark in the mishkan, the Tent of Meeting. One should learn from this that a scholar who has forgotten their knowledge due to circumstances beyond their control must not be treated with disrespect.” (Menachot 99a) ‘Beyond their control’ meaning through old age, sickness and so on.

20 years ago, my mother was in the last years of her life, sliding into senility in a care home. One of the times I was visiting her, I noticed a man I had not seen before, a new resident. He looked familiar: a fine Jewish historian whose work I knew and respected, editor of a prominent journal, a distinguished career. I asked one of the staff and they confirmed that it was indeed him. I went to him, said ‘hello,’ wanted to engage in conversation with him. I mentioned articles of his I had read, the journal he edited. But there was nothing, no acknowledgement, apparently no awareness. It was a sad, salutary lesson.

Seeing what had become of him reminded me of those broken fragments in the Ark with the second set. He’d lost his marbles through no fault of his own, just the circumstances, cruel or otherwise, of old age and what happens to our minds and bodies.

Three possibilities, then, about those broken fragments: they just get forgotten, consigned to the Room 101 of Jewish history; or they benefitted Moses, made him rich but did nothing for anybody else; or were a reminder of something in the past.

In that respect they are a bit like scar tissue. When we cut ourselves deeply and it begins to heal, a scab forms. It itches and it’s hard to forget it’s there. Eventually the scab falls off, revealing new tissue underneath. A scar remains but it doesn’t hurt or itch any more. But if the scar catches our eye, however, the cause of that scar comes flooding back into our consciousness.

Broken fragments of the tablets, broken fragments of our past.

I think that midrash shows great wisdom and understanding. We can’t forget our broken fragments or leave them behind. They accompany us in our personal ark and unless we recognise that they’re there, they continue to exert a hold on us without our realising it. Our past comes back to haunt us in the present. And what are those fragments? – the things we’ve done, past unresolved relationships, the sum of our experiences, good and bad, for better or worse.

There are no Repair Shops for that; no Antiques Roadshow experts to put a price on them. More akin to Japanese kintsugi, maybe? – the gold lines there highlighting the broken fragments paradoxically made the objects more beautiful. That bit of the analogy doesn’t apply here. But the part that does is that those gold lines are reminders of the history of that object, saying “they can’t be ignored.” So too are the broken fragments of our personal Torah integral parts of our history, of who and what we are now. Luchot v’shivrei luchot munachin ba’aron “the tablets – and the broken pieces of the tablets – rest side by side in the Ark.”