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Never Broken

How a Rebbe Helped a Survivor Embrace His Fragments

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • August 9, 2010
  • |
  • 29 Av 5770
  • Comment

Class Summary:

The Survivor - How a Rebbe Helped a Survivor Embrace His Fragments

In honor of Chabad Rabbis and Rebetzins in the United States, Israel, and around the world. We are beyond blessed to know so many of you. Thank you for your tireless dedication and 24/7 work. You have forever enriched our lives and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. May you go from strength to strength. With gratitude, Jeff and Deborah Berg

The Jewish Perspective

Ammunition had run out for a unit in the Russian army, but it was still under fierce attack. “Take out your bayonets,” said the corporal, “we are going to engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.”

“Please sir,” said Pvt. Finkelstein. “Show me my man. Maybe he and I can reach some kind of agreement.”

The Survivor

Let me share a story[1]:

After the war, a Holocaust survivor came to visit his one-time spiritual master, the famed Rebbe of the Chassidic dynasty of Ger, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter[2]. This broken Jew had been deported to the death camps together with his wife, children, relatives, and the entire community. The man's wife and children were gassed, his relatives exterminated and his entire community wiped out. He emerged from the ashes a lonely man in a vast world that had silently swallowed the blood of six million Jews. This Jew lost one more thing in the camps: his G-d. After what he experienced in the Nazi death camps, he could not continue believing in a G-d who allowed Auschwitz.

Although after the war he made aliyah to Eretz Israel (then known as Palestine), he completely abandoned Jewish practice and observance. Yet he missed his old Rebbe and went to visit him in Tel Aviv. The Gerer Rebbe himself lost many grandchildren and relatives in the Holocaust. In addition, nearly all of his 200,000 followers were wiped out by the Germans. The Rebbe of Ger and his immediate children managed to escape Warsaw in 1940 and arrived in Eretz Israel soon after.

Upon hearing the story of his disciple, the Rebbe of Ger broke into tears. The man and his Rebbe sat together mourning what they had lost. After a long period of weeping, the Gerer Rebbe wiped his tears and communicated—in Yiddish—the following idea.

"Before Your Eyes"

In his farewell address to his people, in the Torah portion of Eikev, Moses recounts the moment when he descended from Mount Sinai with the two Divine tablets to present to the Jewish people[3]:

"I descended from the mountain," Moses recalls, "the mountain was still burning with fire and the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. I immediately saw that you had sinned to G-d, making a calf. You were so quick to turn from the path that G-d had prescribed. "I grasped the two tablets, and threw them down from my two hands, and I smashed them before your eyes."

Moses proceeds to relate how after much toil he succeeded in “convincing” G-d to forgive the Jewish people for their sin. He then, as mentioned above, carved out a second pair of tablets to replace the first ones. Though the two sets were identical in content, containing the Ten Commandments, the second pair did not possess the same Divine quality as the first tablets, which were "G-d's handiwork and G-d's script[4]." The second tablets were Moses’ creation, endorsed by G-d, but not G-d’s own creation.

Now, considering the well-known meticulousness of each word in the Bible, Moses' words "I smashed them before your eyes" seem superfluous. Suppose Moses had turned around and broken the tablets out of view; would that in any way have lessened the tragedy? Why did Moses find it important to emphasize that the breaking of the tablets occurred "before your eyes"[5]?

Two Worlds

What Moses was saying, explained the Rebbe of Ger, was that "I smashed the tablets only before your eyes." The shattering of the tablets occurred only before your eyes and from your perception. In reality, though, there exists a world in which the tablets have never been broken.

What Moses was attempting to communicate, the Rebbe of Ger explained is that what may seem to us as utter destruction and chaos, does not always capture the complete story. "I smashed them before your eyes." Before your eyes, there is nothing but devastation. Yet, what in our world bespeaks total disaster may, in a different world, be wholesome.

“As difficult as it is to digest, the Gerer Rebbe went on to say, “there is meaning in the absurdness of history; there is dignity in the valley of tears. G-d—the G-d who transcends all human logic, understanding, and imagination—was present in our broken pieces." 

"As difficult as it is for you and me to believe," the Rebbe concluded, "I want you to know that the extermination of our families, our communities, and our people occurred only 'before our eyes.' There remains a world in which the Jewish people are wholesome. Beneath the surface of our perception, there exists a reality in which every single Jew from Abraham till our present day is alive, his or her soul absolutely intact." 

"The day will come," said the Rebbe of Ger, "when that world will be exposed. G-d will transform our perceptions and paradigms. He will mend our broken tablets and our broken nation. We will discover how the tablets were really never broken and the Jewish people were always complete."

These are words that could be effective only when communicated by a man who experienced the suffering of the war on his own flesh. Pain is not an intellectual subject; it is raw, personal, and real. When the Rebbe of Ger spoke these words, he spoke them with tears, with grief. He was not an objective preacher of religion; together with the Holocaust survivor, he walked through his tunnel of darkness. Thus, his words gave back to this broken Jew his soul, his faith, and his courage.

Shattered Dreams

Notwithstanding the grand distinctions, the above message applies to our lives as well. Many of us once owned a set of sacred tablets that at some point in our lives were destroyed. It may have been the death of a mother or father at a young age, bringing to an abrupt end the nurturing and security a child so desperately needs from parents. It may have been any other form of pain, abuse, or loss that you experienced during your life that denied you the love, confidence, joy, and optimism you once called your own. It may be profound fear, shame, insecurity, guilt, disappointment, mistrust, or other forms of emotional trauma that afflict you, shattering your inner sacred and Divine “tablets.”

Many of us create for ourselves a second pair of "tablets" in order to substitute for the first ones that were lost. But they are not quite the same. The second set of "tablets" lacks the magic and the innocence of the original "tablets" that no longer exist. In the depth of our hearts, we crave to reclaim something of the wonder of the old tablets.

But it is to no avail: The clock of life never turns back. Here lay the empowering message of Moses to his beloved people before his own demise: There is a secret world in which your first tablets were never broken. Notwithstanding the abuse and pain you experienced, each of you possesses a core self that forever remains invincible, pure, and sacred.

What is more, when your perception expands, you might discover how your shattered dreams may be part of your individual path to wholesomeness. Wholesomeness does not come in one shape; for some, it comes in the form of a broken heart. What is broken in one level of perception may be wholesome in another.

The Final Month

In a few days, we will commence the last month of the Hebrew calendar, known as the month of Elul, when we bid farewell to a year gone by, and prepare to embrace a new one in its stead, beginning on Rosh Hashanah.

The great sage and mystic Rabbi Nathan Shapiro (d. 1640 in Krakow, Poland) writes[6] that the four Hebrew letters of the name Elul (spelled Aleph, Lamed, Vuv, Lamed) is the acronym of the four Hebrew words “Aron, Luchos, V’shevrei, Luchos” (which also begin with the Hebrew letters Aleph, Lamed, Vuv, Lamed). These words, quoted from the Talmud[7], mean this: “The Ark containing the whole tablets and the broken tablets.”

What does this mean? In the book of Exodus, the Torah captures the dramatic tale of how, following the Revelation at Sinai, G-d carved out two tablets, engraved the Ten Commandments on them, and presented them to Moses on Mount Sinai. When Moses descended the mountain, however, he observed that the Israelites had created a golden calf as an idol. Seeing this, Moses threw the tablets from his hands and smashed them on the ground. After a powerful confrontation with G-d, Moses persuades Him, as it were, to forgive the Jewish people for their betrayal. Moses then, acting on G-d’s instructions, carves out a second pair of tablets, to replace the smashed first ones. When the Ark was built to be located inside the holiest chamber in the Tabernacle the Jews erected in the desert, both sets of tablets were placed therein: the second whole pair of tablets, as well as the fragmented pieces of the first smashed tablets[8].

But what is the connection to the month of Elul? Why does the name of this month symbolize this idea of the Ark containing both sets of Tablets, the complete ones, and the broken ones?

The above story can provide insight. The unique power of the final month of the year, the name of which spells out the words “The Ark containing the whole Tablets and the broken Tablets” is this: This is the month that allows you to build in your personal life an “ark” which will contain not only your second complete tablets but will also embrace the broken pieces of your first tablets. This is the time when you are empowered and can pick up the broken pieces of your life and discover that there is a part of yourself that was never really broken.

What is more, during this month you may lift up with tender love every broken component of your life, learning how each of them constituted another hue of wholesomeness.

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[1] I read the story in a sermon by Rabbi Moshe Weinberger shlita, spiritual leader of Aish Kodesh Institute in Woodmere, N.Y. Afterward I heard it from an elder Gerer Chassid who visited the Imrei Emes as a young man in Poland before the war. Another Gerer Chassid told me that this insight was presented by the Gerer Rebbe at a prayer gathering in the middle of the Holocaust, on 20 Kislev, 5703, in the "Churvah."

[2] Rabbi Avraham Mordechai (born in 1866), known as the Imrei Emes, was the third Rebbe of Ger and passed away in 1948 in Jerusalem. The city was under siege at the time, so he was buried in the courtyard of his yeshiva.

[3] Deuteronomy 9:15-17.

[4] Exodus 32:16.

[5] Cf. Abarbanel to Deuteronomy 9:17. Likkutei Sichos vol. 9 p. 241; vol. 26 p. 252. My gratitude to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.

[6] Sefer Megaleh Amukos.

[7] Bava Basra 14b.

[8] On a literal level the connection is this: On the 29th of Av, at the end of Moses’ second 40-day period on Mount Sinai, G-d agreed to give the second set of tablets to Israel. The following day Moses ascended again, and remained on the mountain throughout the month of Elul. On Yom Kippur he descended with the new set of tablets (Rashi to Exodus).

Please leave your comment below!

  • Anonymous -11 months ago

    Beautiful message!

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • S

    S.W. -5 years ago

    completely magnificent!
    you are healing the world Rabbi, one lesson at a time!


    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Parshas Eikev/Elul

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • August 9, 2010
  • |
  • 29 Av 5770
  • |
  • Comment

In honor of Chabad Rabbis and Rebetzins in the United States, Israel, and around the world. We are beyond blessed to know so many of you. Thank you for your tireless dedication and 24/7 work. You have forever enriched our lives and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. May you go from strength to strength. With gratitude, Jeff and Deborah Berg

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The Survivor - How a Rebbe Helped a Survivor Embrace His Fragments

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