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Thursday, 17 February, 2022 - 7:45 pm

A boy asks his father to explain the differences between irritation, aggravation, and misery.

Dad picks up the phone and dials a number at random. When the phone is answered he asks, "Can I speak to Ralph, please?"

"No! There's no one called Ralph here." The person hangs up.

"That's irritation," says Dad.

He picks up the phone again, dials the same number, and asks for Ralph a second time.

"No--there's no one here called Ralph. Go away. If you call again I shall telephone the police." End of conversation.

"That's aggravation."

"Then what's ‘misery’?" asks his son.

The father picks up the phone and dials a third time:

"Hello, this is Ralph. Have I received any phone calls?"

The story recorded in this week’s portion, Ki Tisa, goes like this: After the Jews created a Golden Calf, and many worshipped it, Moses smashed the tablets stone carved by G-d, engraved with the Ten Commandments. Moses pleads with G-d for forgiveness, and He gives them a second chance. Moses hewed the second set of stone tablets; G-d engraved them with the Ten Commandments, and Moses gave the new ones to the Jewish people.

A few major questions come to mind.

1. Moses, outraged by the sight of a golden calf erected by the Hebrews as a deity, smashed the stone tablets. He apparently felt that the Jews were undeserving of them and that it would be inappropriate to give them this Divine gift. But why did Moses have to break the sacred heavenly tablets? Moses could have hidden them or returned them to their Divine maker?

These Two Tablets were priceless—created, crafted, and engraved by G-d Himself. Even if Moses was angry, how can he destroy this irreplaceable item?

2. The Torah recounts how following the breaking of the first tablets, G-d tells Moses to carve out a second set of tablets, “and I shall inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets which you have broken.”

G-d gave Moses a big “Thank you” for this act of breaking the tablets. Why?

The Talmud teaches us The Ark, containing both sets of tablets were later taken into the Land of Israel and kept side by side, situated in the Holy of Holies in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

This seems strange. Why would they place the broken tablets in the Holy of Holies together with the second set of whole tablets?

The Talmudic commentators explain:

The broken Tablets, and the act of breaking them, are precious to G-d, for if He would have been upset that they were broken, He would not have said to place them in the Ark in the Holy of Holies. A prosecutor does not become the defender.

Why display in this most sacred space a permeate “prosecuting witness” to our deepest moment of shame?

There is a fascinating Midrash:

Moshe was distressed for having broken the Tablets. G-d said to him, “Do not be pained that you broke the first set of Tablets. For the first one contained only the Ten Commandments, while within the second set of Tablets I am giving you the entire body of Torah wisdom—Halacha, Midrash, Agada, and Talmud.

This seems absurd. The Jews commit this gravest of sins, Moses breaks the tablets, and then he feels bad. G-d says: Actually, this was a job done well! The first tablets were missing some serious parts of the Torah; by destroying them, and getting the new tablets, you are getting a much better deal.

It seems like the breaking of the tablets was the best thing that could have ever happened for the Jewish people! Without it, they could not receive the full Torah.

The Rebbe shared a most profound and extraordinary perspective. Its application for our lives today is transformative.

The great 19th-century Chassidic master, Rabbi M. Mendel of Kotzk, once said: “There is nothing as crooked (useless) as a straight ladder; nothing straighter than a crooked (slanted) ladder; nothing as black as a white lie, and nothing more whole than a broken heart.”

The prerequisite for all real wisdom, growth, and discovery is a sense of absolute humility.

This is true with all wisdom and of course the source of all wisdom—the Torah. If there is no crack, the light gets blocked. If all my “walls” are not broken down, I remain closed to anything beyond me, and certainly to infinity.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” said one of the great Jewish thinkers. “The ultimate knowledge is the knowledge that I do not know.”

How true.  

This allows us to become curious. We ask questions. We learn. We can hear something new. Our fear of being deflated or being proven wrong, or our biases, do not shut us out from growth, from transcending our prisons and traps.

Only when I lose everything, only when I feel I have nothing, then I open myself to become everything. When I realize how small I am, I can also discover how great I can become.

A heart that is whole is broken—it’s a fragment of its true self, an insignificant small creature in the presence of infinity. But a broken heart, a heart that knows it is small and broken, is open to the awesome and endless wholeness of life.  

I was reading about Usain Bolt, the fastest human being recorded in the history of the world, the record holder in both the 100 and 200 meters, and the only person to win both events in three consecutive Olympics. Watching him run is an electrifying experience; it seems almost superhuman. He is widely considered to be the greatest sprinter of all time.

Scientists, of course, have studied his running to understand how Bolt could be so fast. They found something completely unexpected. His stride is dramatically uneven; his left foot stays on the ground 14% longer than his right. Conventional science asserts that an uneven stride slows a runner down. And what’s more—Bolt’s irregularity comes from a fundamentally unbalanced body. You see, severe scoliosis curved his spine and made his right leg half an inch shorter than his left! Scientists are left scratching their heads. Could it be that his imperfect body is the secret to his insane speed?

Is this not true for many of us? Sometimes, it is your flaws, imperfections, and cracks, which allow you to run so much faster in the game of life and reach heights that you could have never reached without them.

Many of the greatest artists, musicians, and thinkers of all time had something materially “flawed” about them. Beethoven wrote his finest symphonies while going deaf. Virginia Woolf expanded our conception of literature and Vincent Van Gogh our way of seeing color, while they both struggled deeply with mental illness.

People have asked me, why is it they feel the presence of G-d in recovery meetings more than anywhere else, sometimes even more than synagogues?

The answer is simple: G-d can be felt wherever there is the absence of ego. When the walls of our egos come crashing down, the light of Hashem is allowed to enter our space.

Whenever you are in the presence of people whose lives and sense of haughtiness and arrogance have been shattered by their mistakes and terrible choices, there is a vulnerability in the room. You will feel G-d there.

“Where is G-d?” Asked, again, the Kotzker Rebbe? “Wherever you let him in.”  

Or as Hemingway put it: "The world breaks everyone, and afterward some are stronger in the broken places.”


A story: One year, the Baal Shem Tov said to Rabbi Zeev Kitzes, one of his senior disciples, "You will blow the shofar for us this Rosh Hashanah. I want you to study all the kabbalistic meditations that pertain to shofar so that you should meditate upon them when you do the blowing."

Rabbi Ze'ev applied himself to the task with trepidation over the immensity of the responsibility. He also prepared a sheet of paper on which he noted the main points of each meditation he needed to reflect upon while blowing the shofar.

Finally, the great moment arrived. It was the morning of Rosh Hashanah and Rabbi Ze'ev standing on the platform in the center of the Baal Shem Tov's synagogue, surrounded by a sea of worshippers. 

Rabbi Ze'ev reached into his pocket and his heart froze: The paper had disappeared. He distinctly remembered placing it there that morning, but now it was gone. He searched his memory for what he had learned, but his distress over the lost notes froze his mind. Tears of frustration filled his eyes as he realized that now he must blow the shofar like a simpleton, devoid of spiritual meaning and ecstasy. Rabbi Ze'ev blew the litany of sounds required by Jewish law and returned to his place, an emptiness etched deeply in his heart.

At the conclusion of prayers, the Baal Shem Tov approached Rabbi Ze'ev, who sat sobbing under his tallis. "Gut Yom Tov, Reb Ze'ev!" he exclaimed. "That was a most extraordinary shofar-blowing we heard today!"

"But Rebbe... Why?..."

"In the king's palace," said the Baal Shem Tov, "there are many gates and doors leading to many halls and chambers. The palace-keepers have great rings holding many keys, each of which opens a different door. The meditations are keys, each unlocking another door in our souls, each accessing another chamber in the supernal worlds.

"But there is one key that fits all the locks, a master key that opens all the doors, that opens up for us the innermost chambers of the Divine palace. That master key is a broken heart."

Here we come to the clincher—and the incredibly daring insight of the Rebbe.

As Jews stood at Sinai, face to face with G-d, they could not help but feel on top of the world. At the time when—“You have chosen us from among all the nations, you have loved us, desired us, and elevated us above all languages,” how could we not feel like that? There was a justified sense of absolute contentment and satisfaction.

And it was great. Beautiful. Marvelous. Awesome.

But there is a but…

True infinity can only be experienced in moments of brokenness. It is maybe sad, but it is the truth. Only when my “I” goes silent can I hear the still inner voice of the Thou. Only in the absence of my ego, even a holy and good ego, can I experience ultimate truth. “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.”

So the Jewish people are on top of the world—celebrating their good fortune and content with how high they have reached. But in this very process, they are also blocking themselves off from absorbing infinity. Torah has been given to them, but can it become theirs?! Can they own it? Internalize it for real? Can they become a true nation of G-d, a people forever attentive to the voice of infinity?

Moses breaks the tablets. It splinters into many tiny pieces. And in that process, the heart of every Jew splinters into a million little pieces. No heart could remain unmoved, apathetic, and oblivious to the sight of Moses—the loyal shepherd of Israel, the faithful prophet of G-d—feeling compelled to take the most precious item in our universe, the embodiment of Divine wisdom, and breaking it in front of their eyes.

Can you imagine what the people felt like at that moment? The shock, the horror, the sadness, and the inner remorse?


The holy Ark must contain both sets of tablets; both of them together create the sanctity of the Ark and the entire holy of Holies. For all holiness can only be created by the merging of these two sets of tablets.

The human “ark,” representing the human body, mind, and soul, must contain not one but two sets of tablets—the whole ones and the broken ones.

I must be whole, and I must be broken.

For me to function, to achieve, to produce, to learn, grow and create—I must feel and experience self-value, self-dignity, self-importance. When I learn Torah, I need to be able to employ my critical thinking, to discern, analyze, ask, debate. I need to be fully present with my full personality and my capacity.

If I am simply a broken vessel, then I can’t contain anything. There is no I who can experience and internalize anything.

But that is not enough. The human “ark” must also contain the broken tablets—I have to be open to all my broken parts. I must maintain deep humility, openness, and unpretentiousness. Only then can I become a conduit for the higher light, for Divine truth, for real Torah, for the inner wisdom and enlightenment.

What’s the logic here? The Chuppah is over, the joy is about to erupt, and we are busy breaking a fine glass?

The Maharshal says it is to commemorate the breaking of the tablets, following the Chuppah between G-d and Israel at Sinai. But wait? The breaking of the tablets happened after the golden calf, why do we want to commemorate that under a Chuppah?

Now it is clear. Because it is precisely at this moment in the wedding, when everything is so whole, that we must introduce also the broken pieces. Moses never discards the broken fragments of the first set of tablets he had smashed but carries them alongside the finished tablets in the Mishkan, and then they do to the Holy Temple. The ark could not be complete without both. For the bride and groom too, there must be wholeness and pride, but also deep humility, and the knowledge of how vulnerable marriage is, how easily they can drift away, and how little it takes to break the trusting bond between a husband and a wife. Let pride and arrogance not take over.

Precisely at the happiest moments of the couple, we break the glass, as Moses broke the tablets, to teach how each of us must be both wholes, confident, powerful, and full of inner dignity. But also humble, small, open, and broken.  

How can I handle both? How does one maintain such a balance?

When I realize I am in the presence of G-d when I recognize that my I is part of the Divine thou, I can be both assertive and humble at the same time, both fully confident and fully humble, both with a whole heart and a broken heart, since both are true expressions of my oneness with G-d, the source and truth of all reality.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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