Sunday, March 6, 2016

Broken Hearts - Shattered Luchos - Comments of Baruch Cohen in Observance of the 12th Yahrtzeit of Hindy Cohen

1. Avinu Malkeinu: the Shoes of the Danube 

Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, rav of the Aish Kodesh shul in Woodmere, Long Island, tells of a remarkable story:

A Chassid asked his Rebbe: there are two lines in the prayers that are said on the holiest day of the year Rosh Hashana - the  Avinu Malkeinu that seem to echo the same sentiment:

Avinu Malkeinu; Asei LeMaan Harugim Al Shem Kadshecha - our Father, our King, act for the sake of those who were murdered for Your Holy Name; 

followed by: 

Avinu Malkeinu; Asei Lemaan Tevuchim Al Yechudecha - our Father, our King, act for the sake of those slaughtered for your Oneness. 

What’s the difference between those who were Harugim Al Shem Kadshecha  ‘murdered for Your Holy Name’ and those who were Tevuchim Al Yechudecha ‘slaughtered for your Oneness?’

The Chassid answered: 

“I am a Holocaust survivor. I lived in a small shtetl in Budapest, Hungary where, on the night of January 8, 1945 the Nazi division known as the Hungarian Arrow Cross Militiaman marched into my town, rounded up all of the Jews, approximately 100 people, to the banks of the Danube. They lined us up, side by side, at the river’s edge of the Danube River not far from the Hungarian Parliament building. We were ordered to take off our shoes, and were to be shot at the edge of the water so that our bodies would fall into the icy river and get carried away. The Nazis pulled the shoestrings out of our shoes, and used them to tie our helpless hands together before we were shot.  They positioned us at the edge of the water, so that when one Jew would fall into the Danube, the dead body would pull the still-living victims with it. The killers faced their victims without mercy; the victims faced the killers without blindfolds. 

Then one of the Nazi commanders who was standing on the embankment of the river, shouted:  “Shoot!” For just a second, a very long second, nothing happened. Another Nazi then lifted his machine gun at us and began to shoot, starting from the right side, moving to the left. All of us Jews raised our voices at once and cried out to G-d the sentence from the Torah that Jews say when sanctifying their lives in God’s name: “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Achad!” The ones on the right side of the line, were unable to complete the Shema and they only got mid-sentence “Shema Yisroel Hashem...”, while those on the left side of the line, managed to say all of the words of the Shema before falling into the river. The Danube river was red with blood that day. All the bodies, tied together by shoelaces or rope or fate, would either sink or float away down the river. If the Nazis noticed that some of us Jews were still alive, they used us for target practice. However, most of the Jews – especially the children – died immediately because the water was freezing cold. During that day of horror in the winter of 1945, the Danube was known as "the Jewish Cemetery."

“Rebbeh” the Chassid said: “I survived that bloody brutal massacre, I passed out for a second or two but the ice cold water of the Danube in December revived me instantly. I remember coming to my senses and clearly realizing what had happened. I was floating without splashing so that they wouldn’t shoot me in the water. Those Yidden on the right side who were killed instantly, were Harugim Al Shem Kadshecha they were murdered by mid-sentence Al Shem Kadshecha by the word: “Hashem” His holy name; while those on the left, who managed to finish the entire Shema all the way to the last word Echad, they were Tevuchim Al Yechudecha they were slaughtered after reciting the word “Echad” His oneness.” 

Today, “The Shoes on the Danube Bank” is a memorial in Budapest, Hungary, on the banks of the Danube River, there sit sixty pairs of old-fashioned shoes, the type we wore in the 1940s. There are women's shoes, there are men's shoes and there are children's shoes. They sit at the edge of the water, scattered and abandoned, as though their owners had just stepped out of them and left them there. 

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The Shoes on the Danube Bank is a memorial in Budapest, Hungary

Every Yom Tov that I daven in this shul, and ascend to Duchen, I and other Kohanim in this shul take off our shoes and leave them in a row up front, every time I see our shoes lined up, I’m reminded of the haunting scene of the Shoes of the Danube, and of those holy martyrs who were Harugim Al Shem Kadshecha  ‘murdered for Your Holy Name’ and those who were Tevuchim Al Yechudecha ‘slaughtered for your Oneness.

2. Broken

The Gemorah in Bava Basra 14a teaches us that: “Luchos Ve’shivrey Luchos Munachim Be’Aron”  the whole Luchos (the tablets) and the broken Luchos nestled inside the Aron Kodesh, the Ark of the Covenant.  

This seems strange. Why would Hashem place the broken tablets in the Kodesh Kodoshim? After all, these fragments were a constant reminder of the great moral failure of Klal Yisroel. 

In Parshas Eikev, we read that after Klal Yisroel created an Eigal HaZahav, the Golden Calf, Moshe Rabbeinu smashed the stone tablets created by Hashem, engraved with the Aseres Hadibros, the Ten Commandments. Moshe Rabbeinu, outraged by the sight of an Eigal HaZahav erected by Klal Yisroel as a deity, smashed the stone tablets. He apparently felt that Klal Yisroel was undeserving of them, and that it would be inappropriate to give them this Divine gift. 

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the Kohein Godol would not perform the service with his usual golden garments, since gold was remotely reminiscent of the golden calf. Yet in this instance, throughout the entire year, the very symptom of the golden calf – the broken tablets – were stored in the Kodosh Kodoshim!

3. Broken Hearts; Shattered Luchos

The 16th century Kabbalistic work, Reshis Chochmah, teaches that the Ark is a symbol of the human heart. HaRav Eliyahu de Vidash of Tzfat: 

“The human heart is the Ark, thus a person’s heart must be full of Torah but simultaneously be a Broken Heart, a beaten heart. Only thus can it serve as a home for the Divine Presence. For She only dwells in broken vessels.”

The two sets of tablets in the Ark offer a striking metaphor. Namely, that brokenness and wholeness Luchos Ve’shivrey Luchos can coexist Munachim Be’Aron side by side, even in Judaism’s holiest spot – in the heart of the holy Ark.

People experience brokenness in many ways. One way that many of us experience despair and crushing pain is through the death of a loved one, especially when life is cut short. Those of us who have passed through the ‘valley of death’ and wept through the ‘valley of tears’ those of us who have lost loved ones, know that we forever carry ‘broken tablets’.  Shivrey Luchos. Loss forever remains a part of us. We carry the aching loss, and for some of us, we carry pain in our hearts and minds forever. The image of the broken tablets, unfortunately, offers an accurate representation of our lives and the life of the world around us. We carry our brokenness with us always.

After a painful loss, life continues, but now differently than before. We move through life now with two sets of tablets. Luchos Ve’shivrey Luchos. There are times of joy; there are very happy times. They are encased in the same box; Munachim Be’Aron in the same heart.

The bereaved, and especially those that have suffered painful loss, often live their life with two compartments within one heart – the whole and the broken, side by side

We yearn for our lives to be whole, to experience a sense of unity and one-ness, but more often than we care to admit, that experience is elusive, evasive, unattainable. The intact tablets, pristine in their perfection, convey an image of completeness and wholeness that is at odds with our fragmentary experience. The image of the broken tablets offers a more accurate representation of our lives and our world.

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4. Rising from the Ashes

Usually, we think of wholeness and brokenness as two diametrically opposed states of being. But that isn’t necessarily so. Sometimes brokenness leads to wholeness to the point that without the broken pieces, there could be no whole.

There are moments when Hashem desires that we connect to Him as wholesome people, with clarity and a sense of fullness; there are yet deeper moments when He desires that we find Him in the shattered experiences of our lives.

As Rabbi YY Jacobson said: 

“We hope and pray to always enjoy the “whole tablets,” but when we encounter the broken ones, we ought not to run from them or become dejected by them; with tenderness we ought to embrace them and bring them into our “holy of holies,” recalling the observation of the Kotzker Rebbe, "there is nothing more whole, than a broken heart."” 

What Moshe Rabbeinu accomplished with breaking the Luchos was the demonstration of the truth that holiness can be carved out from the very alienation of a person from Hashem. From the very turmoil of his or her psychological and spiritual brokenness, a new holiness can be discovered.
It is on this note that the Torah chooses to culminate its tribute to Moshe Rabbeinu’ life. In its eulogy for Moshe, the Torah chooses this episode of smashing the tablets as the highlight and climax of Moshe’s achievements. His greatest achievement? How about Yetzias Mitzrayim - his taking the Jews out of Egypt? Molding them into a people? Krias Yam Suf - the Splitting the Red Sea? Kabbalas HaTorah - the receiving the Torah from G-d and transmitting it to humanity? Shepherding them for forty years in a wilderness? Yet, the Torah chooses this tragic and devastating episode to capture the zenith of Moshe Rabbeinu’s life and as the theme with which to conclude the entire Torah, all five books of Moses?!

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Moshe Rabbeinu was his ability to show humanity how we can take our brokenness and turn it into a Kodesh Kodoshim.

The Sages teach that the Holy Ark “carried those who carried it.” When the priests “carried” the Ark, rather than feel its weight, the priests would feel energized and lifted up; the Ark miraculously “carried” them. So, too, our broken parts need not weigh us down. When we use our brokenness as a catalyst toward wholeness, our broken pieces lift us up and move us forward.

5. Turn to Nothing to Become Something

While it felt that my very being was dissolving after Hindy’s death, I realized at one point in time that I was undergoing a kind of alchemy, a transmutation of self, that may one day invite and include something much more powerful than the pain. Of course, I would prefer to be a more relaxed superficial person with my daughter alive than to be imbued with a profound sense of mission. But I came to realize that within suffering, lies a form of greatness. 

As Sherri Mandel, the author of “The Blessings of a Broken Heart” and of “Resilience”  wrote: 

“When we permit ourselves to enter the chaos, to stumble, to cry out, to surrender to our defenselessness, we may find that our pain leads us towards greater truths about our vulnerabilities, and our power in this world. Entering the chaos prepares us to receive a heightened clarity and wisdom as well as to engage in a more intimate relationship with Hashem.”

Dovid Hamelech’s Tehillim 126 is a psalm of hope; in it’s final lines, we recognize a deep connection between emptiness and formation. 

HaZorim BeDimah BeRinah Yiktzoru - Those who sow in tears will reap in song; 

HaLoch Yelech Uvacha Nosei Meshech Hazorah - Those who bear the measure of seed goes on his weeping; 

Bo Yavo BeRinah Nosei Alumosav - He shall surely come home with exultation, bearing his sheaves. 

When it feels like the earth that supported you has been irreparably overturned, there is a divine promise in Dovid Hamelech’s Tehillim that new seedlings will one day take root and grow. We are promised a harvest when it seems improbable, when we cannot imagine growth. 
Every seed has to disintegrate before it can grow into a fruit or vegetable. Every seed has to break apart to sprout. It has to surrender to the darkness of mystery in order to emerge. And therein lies the stunning truth of life, of grief, and of healing: the seed has to turn to nothing to become something. 

How do we cope with fear and pain of nothingness or of brokenness? By realizing that a crucial aspect of resilience is the ability to allow the darkness, to surrender, to pause in the chaos of pain, to suspend our routine, to wait, to receive. We have to learn to stop and allow the waves of pain to wash over us. Because once we are broken, then Hashem can be the Healer of the Broken Hearted as Dovid Hamelech calls the Rofei LiShburei Lev. 

We dwell in a crucible of doubt and imbalance, of emptiness and anguish. One has to undergo the process of decomposition in order to be reborn. “The things which hurt,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “instruct.” What impedes us, can actually empower us. 

To be able to contain this truth requires deep humility, faith, and surrender. It’s almost impossible to believe that at the moment of destruction and dissolution, that rebirth is actually beginning. Yet it is said, that on Tisha Bav Moshiach is born. 

6. Chinese Zen Parable - CrackPots

A story is told about a man who owned two large pots. Each hung on the ends of a pole, which she carried every day on her shoulders to fill with water from the stream located at the end of the village. One of the pots was complete and always delivered a full portion of water; the other pot was cracked and arrived home each day only half full. Of course, the complete pot was proud of its accomplishments. It felt really good about itself. The poor cracked pot, on the other hand, was ashamed of its own imperfections; it was miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do. After years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, the humbled broken pot finally opened its heart to the woman at the stream.  "I hate myself,” the cracked pot cried, “I am so useless and valueless. What purpose does my existence have when each day I leak out half of my water? I am such a loser!” The man smiled and said: ”Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot's side? I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path.  Every day while we walk back from the stream, you have the opportunity to water them. "For years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate our home.  Without you being just the way you are, we would have never created this beauty together."

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This week, on Friday Rosh Chodesh Adar, we will commemorate the 12th Yahrtzeit of Hindy. We will never forget Hindy. 

We feel diminished and broken by her loss, for she was a beacon illuminating our family with a special light. I will continue to declare it every day, and especially on the day of her Yahrtzeit.

Hollywood screenwriter Robert Avrech, also a fellow bereaved parent, put it best, in describing his intense yearning for his deceased son Ariel’s Neshamah after years of bereavement - which I will apply and adapt to mine to Hindy’s: “Contrary to all logic, as time passes, our memories of Hindy have become more vivid. The images of every stage of her life are easier to evoke in all nuance and detail. This is a mixed blessing since it intensifies our longing for her smile, her steadfastness, her intelligence and kindness. Yet the enrichment of memory strengthens her role in our family as a luminous spirit, guiding us in the corporeal world. Her goodness, her modest piety are a constant reminder of what we should all strive for in our lives. Indeed, Hindy’s absence has been transformed into a deeply felt presence.”

We always think about her, but we continue on, with the “second set of Luchos” even after our first set was broken and shattered. When we feel that our “set of Luchos” are shattered, we need only open our hearts to receive Hashem’s gift of a “second set of Luchos,” the belief that joy can, and will, find a place in our lives again, with Luchos  that will never be broken.

Bilah HaMoves Lanetzach, Umacha Hashem Elokim Dimah Meyal Kol Ponim - May He swallow up death forever; may Hashem wipe away tears from every face (Isaiah 25:8) T'hei Nishmasa Tzrurah B'tzror Ha'chaim.