The Holiness of Glass Blowing – Part 2 –Two Cups: The Broken and The Whole©

The Holiness of Glass Blowing – Part 2 –Two Cups:  The Broken and The Whole©
Yom Kippur Day, 5776/2015
Rabbi David Baum

Last night, I told you the story about the glass cup I created, well, now’s the time for you to see it, but here’s the thing – there’s two of them.

Confused?  Let me explain.  When one makes something out of steel, you finish the product by dipping it into water so it cools.  But you can’t do that with glass.  After it becomes formed, you have to take the glass and put it in a special vessel where it is gradually cooled over 6 – 10 hours.  This is necessary because if you cool it too quickly, the glass will shatter, but if you put it in a hot place, the glass can melt. 

The next morning after I made my beautiful glass cup, I was expecting to have my creation in my hand, ready to show off to my friends.  I went to the glass blower and asked him when I could pick it up.  He looked at me and said, “Well, we had a problem – your glass cup was great, truly it was.  The problem is, there’s a crack that developed in the cup.  I thought you might be disappointed, so I made you a new cup, with the same colors, but it also needed time to cool.  If you come by later and you can pick it up.” 

I was excited – a new cup made by an expert glass blower!  It’ll probably look a lot better than mine, and it won’t have a crack – it’ll be perfect.  So the question I asked was, which one do I want?  The imperfect glass with a crack in it, or the perfect and round glass? 

There’s one more lesson about my glass cup that I need to teach you – a lesson I learned, and a lesson that has helped me become a better person. 

Remember when I told you what gift we received on Yom Kippur?  The second set of tablets – the whole ones.  The first set were shattered by Moses on the 17th of Tammuz, 40 days and nights earlier, when the people were worshipping the Golden Calf.  40 days and nights later, after Moses had his alone time, he brings down two new tablets.  So what happened to the first set of tablets?  Did he throw them away?  Use them to make the new ones?  Where did they go?

This is where the midrash steps in to fill in a hole in the Torah’s account of the Tablets – the rabbis tell us that the first set were not lost; they weren’t thrown away; they weren’t the building materials for the second set – they remained broken and shattered, and they were placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the whole tablets.  The tablets that were in the Ark of the Covenant became the focal point of the camp – the people surrounded the Ark, it was the heart of the camp – when it moved, so did the people.  When the Holy Temple was built, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies, the Kodesh HaKodeshim – it was the heart of the Israelites. 

The question is, why did they keep the brokenness and imperfection of the first set of Tablets with them, both in the Wilderness, and then eventually in the Temple, when they had perfection at their center?  Why keep the broken and the whole together? 

Today, I want to talk about this idea – the two glass cups, the two tablets – the whole tablets, and the broken tablets – the whole things in our lives, and the brokenness that we carry with us in OUR hearts. 

We live in amazing times.  Do you know what’s interesting?  There are fewer and fewer repairers in our country.  It used to be that there was a shoe repairer on every block, but now, who needs to repair shoes when you can just throw them away and buy a new pair?  Extended warrantees for most electronics are a joke – why repair it when you could just buy a new and more improved electronic item?  Why try and fix my old iPhone 5 when I can get a new iPhone 6? 

But there are some things we cannot just throw away, even if we want to so desperately.

I had this very real moment with my parents during the 10 Days of Tesuvah that I want to share with you.  They asked me about my Middle School experience which I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, they said, “we never knew you felt this way, why didn’t you tell us?”  For so long I had never told them the truth, but now was the time, it was part of my Tesuvah process.  I told them that it was difficult for me to share these things – I was picked on a lot and bullied because of my size, I felt incredibly lonely, I couldn’t get anyone, and no one could get me.  It wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, but it was the first time that I experienced brokenness in my life, and I didn’t know how to handle it. 

Who in here hasn’t had a couple of years that they wish they never had? 

In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, we read a powerful line, “humans are like shattered pottery…”  We are, aren’t we?  Being broken is not something we strive for, or a badge of courage.  In fact, people will do anything to say they we are perfect, but that’s not who we are on the inside.  It’s when we are alone, those moments that we hate, when we acknowledge the brokenness, and we think we are weak or imperfect for having them. 

There were so many times when I wished I could forget those years, to pretend like they never happened, to forget how I felt, but I never can, I will never be able to – they will stay with me, like those broken tablets with the whole tablets.  Those broken pieces are literally a part of me.

And that’s what being a Jew is all about, it’s what this holiday is all about – acknowledging the brokenness. 

The brokenness I experienced during those two years of my life made me into the person I am today, and I am grateful for the person I am today – I became a kinder person, looking out for other kids who might be alone and scared - and I’m not the only one.

I met Rabbi Charles Sherman during my second year of Rabbinical school.  Rabbi Sherman was the long time rabbi of Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse, New York.  But I didn’t know him as Rabbi Sherman, I knew him as Chuck, an awesome father, and a passionate fan of the Syracuse Orangemen who sat behind Coach Jim Boeheim at almost every home game.  I became good friends with his son Erez, and I met his dad when they visited him in New York.  I had never met a happier guy than Chuck.  He was always smiling, always laughing and making jokes, “Hey Dave, how about your Gators?  You think they can be half as good as my Orangemen?”

He was so deeply proud of his son Erez, but as I soon found out, Rabbi Sherman has another son, that I dare say, he might be even more proud of:  Eyal.  Erez and I remain close, and he even married a good friend and classmate, Nicole Guzik, and they work as rabbis at one of the most prestigious Conservative Synagogues in North America, Sinai Temple.  They have two beautiful children, and one on the way.  Can you imagine having a son who is that accomplished, and who has given you two beautiful grandchildren, and you can have another son who you might be more impressed with?!?  Eyal didn’t go to rabbinical school, but he did graduate from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree, but he was 28 at the time.  Eyal isn’t married, doesn’t have a job, and he’s in his 30’s and still lives with his parents. 

Something doesn’t quite add up here, right? 

Eyal had a much different path than his brother Erez.  In July of 1985, the Sherman family, Chuck, his wife Leah (who was pregnant at the time with their daughter Nitza), their daughters Nogah and Orah, their son Eyal, a 4 year old, and their youngest son, Erez, age 3, were taking their annual summer vacation in Elm Beach, in the Poconos where they owned a vacation home.  The sun was shining, the kids were playing, and little Eyal was gulping down chocolate popsicles – life couldn’t be any better.  Elm Beach was their family’s happy place – there were no cell phones or email at the time – Rabbi Sherman could just be Chuck, and his family, just another family enjoying the summer and the lake.  Chuck loves this memory and he writes about it in the book he wrote about his life – there, at that moment, his family was whole.  Eight months later, on a cold March night in Syracuse, Eyal woke up crying.  Rabbi Sherman sees his four year old son Eyal on the floor crying, his Sesame Street blanket rolled into a ball, his pillow on the floor, and he had a raging fever.  This was the beginning of their new lives, they just didn’t know it yet.  After visiting numerous doctors and hospitals, they finally received a diagnosis:  Eyal had a lesion the size of a golf ball intertwined in his brain stem.  Their doctors told them, “Take him home, enjoy whatever time you have left, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a year.  More likely, just weeks.” 

The Sherman’s weren’t ready to see their son die.  After months of searching, they found a surgeon in New York willing to operate on Eyal.  The surgery was successful, their hope in having a whole life was restored, they were whole again.  But, a few days later, Eyal had a brain-stem stroke; he slipped into a coma for four months.  Finally, Eyal woke up, and his mind was there.  He remembered his family, he could mouth words, and he even made a couple of jokes.  But his body was broken.  He became a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, dependent on a vent to breath.  It was at that moment that they realized, their lives would never be the same again.  Only a handful of children with Eyal’s physical challenges had ever survived more than a couple of years, but Eyal has beaten the odds.  Eyal has always struggled physically – his life has not been easy, and his family has been there every step of the way.  But despite it all, not only has Eyal lived, but he graduated from Syracuse University after twelve years of study with a degree in Fine Arts, and he’s become a painter.  Thanks to the internet and a computer he controls with his chin, he keeps up with what’s happening in the world, he makes his own decisions, what he’s going to wear, what he wants to do, and who he wants to interact with.  Travel is not easy, but he travels, and I held Eyal’s hand when his younger brother Erez was ordained as a rabbi at JTS in 2009. 

He’s not a 4 year old anymore, now, he’s 33; and his life is a miracle.  But his life took his family in a different direction.  Rabbi Sherman likely could have left the small city of Syracuse and gone to lead one of the most prestigious synagogues in North America.  He was on his way to have the “perfect family”, where his children would all graduate from college, fall in love, find meaningful work, and build strong Jewish families of their own. 

Remember those first set of Tablets that Moses broke?  After liberating his people with God’s help from Egypt, after splitting the Red Sea by God’s hand and leading them safely through the waters, after being with God for 40 days and 40 nights and literally bringing down Tablets that God Godself made, Moses finds that the people have forgotten about him, forgotten about God; they were worshipping a golden calf, degrading themselves.  Moses couldn’t take it, and he broke the Tablets – the vision of his and his people’s life would never come to fruition.  Both Moses and God forgave the people, and a new set of tablets were made, but the first set, the broken set, always remained with them – imperfection always remained with them. 

There’s an old Yiddish expression – Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht - Man plans, God laughs.  It’s a cruel expression, I know.  It’s kind of like that expression that you may hear when something terrible happens to you, “Everything happens for a reason.” 

I have a confession to make, I hate the phrase, everything happens for a reason.  Ok, maybe ‘I missed this bus and found my wife or husband’ everything happens for a reason.  But, my wife made the flight, and she was died in a plane crash – everything happens for a reason? 

Please God, take your reason and give me back my wife, my husband, my brother, my sister, my child.  Please God, save the comedy for us, stop laughing.

But perhaps we can look at this expression, and the brokenness that we all experience in a different way.  Perhaps we can make beauty and meaning out of the broken things in our lives? 

Perhaps we can make reason.

There is an old story told by the Maggid of Dubno, a famous Hassidic rabbi and storyteller who lived in the 1700’s.  There was once a wealthy king who had it all – a loving family, a glorious kingdom, gold piled high to the ceiling, beautiful tapestries, you name it, he had it.  But his most prized possession was a diamond he owned – not only was it the largest in the world, it was the purest and most flawless diamond ever found.  He would stare at it, day after day, hour after hour.  One morning, he took the diamond out of its box, and he noticed something that startled him:  the diamond had a huge scratch in it – it was no longer perfect.  He was dismayed, how could this happen?!?  So he called the greatest stone cutters in the land to his court.  One by one they came to inspect the diamond. Each looked at it closely and then sadly shook his head. The scratch was too deep. If they tried to polish it they might break the diamond into pieces.  Finally one last diamond carver came before the king. He looked at the diamond closely, gazing at it from every angle.  He took the diamond for two weeks, and the king could not wait.  Finally, after two weeks of work from sun rise to sun set, the diamond carver brought the treasured diamond back to the king. 

"Here it is, your majesty," he said. With a flourish he opened the cloth and presented the diamond.

The king gasped at what he saw. Where there had once been a scratch, a horrible flaw in his precious diamond, there was now an exquisitely beautiful flower carved into the diamond. Unable to polish the scratch out of the diamond, the diamond carver had instead turned the flaw into something beautiful.  The king loved his flawed diamond more than ever. Now when he went to hold it in his hands and gaze upon it, he was reminded that even something imperfect could become something exquisitely beautiful if you work on it. 

Today is the day when we show God our broken tablets, our hearts, just like Moses showed to God when he went back up the mountain.  And today, when we are at our most vulnerable, God helps us put the pieces back together, God helps us make reason out of everything that has happened to us, but we have to work on it. 

On Rosh Hashanah, our fates are written, on Yom Kippur, they are sealed.  With God’s help, we seal them, with God’s help, we put the broken pieces back together, but the scars remain forever.  

I see a lot of broken people out there – and thank God that I do, because you, those who are standing here today, have tried to put the pieces back together, and you know how I know?  Because you are here with open hearts.  Some have more work to do than others, like Eyal Sherman and his family, but the more work they do, the more beautiful their lives become.  The more work we do, the more beautiful our lives become. 

Eyal wrote the last chapter in Rabbi Sherman’s book, The Broken and the Whole:  Discovering Joy After Heartbreak.  He writes about getting into the wheelchair for the first time at age 5, going back home, and making a decision:  “Do I sit and look at the walls all day, or do something with my life.”

He decided to do something, to expand his horizons.  It had a snowball effect on him, and others.  One thing lead to another.  He ends the book with these words, “When I see people doing all kinds of things, it makes me have the urge to do what they are doing, too.  What I’ve learned is there is more to life just sitting in a wheelchair.  Eyal penned a short poem:

It isn’t fair
I’m in a wheelchair,
But I can do things that you wouldn’t dare
If you see me rolling by,
Just give a smile and say Hi!

He continues, “I have a dream, that someday I will be able to walk and overcome all my disabilities and God shall answer each and every one of our prayers, and when that day comes, it will truly be a miracle.” 

So which cup did I choose, the broken and imperfect one; or the whole and perfect one made by the skilled hand of a professional?  I kept both, but my favorite one is the one with the crack, the broken one, because I made it, with God’s help, and with God’s help, I found the beauty in it.  And so, I ask of you on this Day of Atonement, to embrace the broken things in your lives, and work to make them beautiful, knowing that they will never be quite as whole as you envisioned it. 

But remember, it’s yours, you made it, with God, and maybe, just maybe, one day, your dreams will come true, and when that day comes, it will truly be a miracle. 


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