The Kotzer Rebbe used to say there is nothing more whole than a broken heart. You can also say there’s nothing more whole than broken tablets. In fact, in addressing the Jewish people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land, Moses recalls their rebellious times in the desert, and in speaking of the new set of tablets, he also refers to the first set hewn by God that he broke after witnessing Israel’s infidelity.
Whatever happened to the shivrei luchot, the broken tablets? According to Rav Yosef (Baba Batra 14b), the broken tablets were also placed in the ark for the Israelites to carry with them throughout their journeys. So too in our own inner sanctums, we carry our past with us as we journey through life, and that we should embrace, not erase. Sadly, I regularly meet people who are so ashamed of their past that they try to deny it, at times even cover it over, as opposed to bringing it with them as they grow and become their even greater selves.
As Reish Lakish (Yoma 86B) says, “So great is repentance that when one repents, his/her sins turn into merits.”
In short, they are not wiped out but rather transformed into positive forces in our lives. No one knew this better than Reish Lakish. After all, before he met Rav Yochanan and became the revered Reish Lakish, he was a gladiator and bandit. The truth is that it is tempting to forget completely one’s past or, for that matter, even the “you” of yesterday. At the same time, though, we are a composite of our past and present selves, and that is not something we can easily forgot. Nor should we. Our past experiences serve to form who we are and if channeled purposefully serve a positive force in our current experience.
Or as King Solomon wisely teaches, “Sheva Yipol Tzaddik Vekam” (Mishlei 24:16): A righteous one is not one who never falters, but rather someone who falls and gets up, falls and gets up, again and again. Psychologist Martin Seligman found that more than IQ, good looks or social intelligence, it is a person’s “grit” or ability to withstand life’s stresses and learn from and integrate their failures that is most predictive of future success. We would also do well by developing spiritual resiliency. Because the challenge of life and its many obstacles is not that we never falter — that would be impossible — but rather that we have resilience. After all, no one is perfect, no matter how righteous. To think otherwise is pure illusion.
As we approach the High Holidays and look to better ourselves, we are not running away from our past but rather harnessing it and integrating even our failings. It’s no wonder that we link the sins leading to Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah through seven special haftarot of consolation, the shiva d’nechemta. For the repentance of the days of awe actually emerge from the devastation of Tisha Ba’Av. We read from these seven haftarot of consolation, and we move from despair to repair. If we redouble our efforts we can become stronger and grow from our moments of weakness, both as a people and as individuals.
Rabbi Etan Mintz is spiritual leader at B’nai Israel Congregation on Lloyd Street.