I thought about this recently in regard to a recent midrash I was exploring at shul this past week. In Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, commenting on parashat Tzav, the rabbis offer an interesting approach to “brokenness,” and how it impacts our value. In this particular parasha, we learn all about the details of the olah offering, and how Aaron and his sons must prepare the sacrifice. However, with the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish people needed to undergo a transformative shift in how we offer sacrifices. The tradition tells us God does not want the blood of blemishless animals any longer. God now desires the service of the heart, or prayer, instead of the service of the physical altar. The Midrash takes this idea even further -- God desires a different kind of prayer, the prayer of the broken heart.
King David provides the words that describe the shift in God’s desired offerings for atonement: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God, You will not despise a broken and crushed heart.” (Psalm 51:17). After the sin committed with Bat Sheva, King David knows that animal sacrifice and pro forma prayer is insufficient. God wants us to offer ourselves up with broken hearts and contrite spirits. The Midrash takes this concept even further:
אמר רבי אלכסנדרי: ההדיוט הזה אם משמש הוא בכלים שבורים גנאי הוא לו, אבל הקב"ה כלי תשמישו שבורים, שנאמר(שם לד): קרוב ה' לנשברי לב. (שם קמז): הרופא לשבורי לב. (ישעיה נז): ואת דכא ושפל רוח זבחי אלהים רוח נשברה לב נשבר.
Rabbi Alexandri said, “If an ordinary person uses broken vessels, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy one Blessed be He are all broken, as it is said “God is close to the broken hearted.” (V. Rabbah 7:2)
We live in a human world that demands the appearance of perfection and wholeness at whole moments. We are expected to be fully present parents while also being the employee who takes the extra steps to ensure excellence. And we are expected to look well-rested and be emotionally balanced while doing so. We are expected to be responsible with our time and money, but take fabulous vacations that enrich our lives. We try and make our way through a world of impossible demands with unfailing grace and equanimity. We are supposed to be superhuman, whole, put together and complete.
But God created us to be human partners in the work of creation, renewal, and repair. That relationship cannot take shape if we are dishonest about who we are, and we do not make space for God to come into our lives and our work. Brokenness is not a bug, it is a feature of who we are. Brokenness makes space for others, most notably the Divine, to come into our lives. The wider the gaps -- the greater the fault lines -- the greater the room is for partnership and the presence of others. The smaller our gaps are, the more narrow the entree is for real connection. Indeed, we know in Hebrew that the word for narrow spaces is “Mitzrayim,” or Egypt.
As we celebrate Pesach, Chag HaHerut, the Festival of Freedom, let us free ourselves from the bondage of the narrow places created through arrogance and a false pretense of having it all figured out. Only when we allow ourselves to be truly broken can we know the liberation that comes from being in authentic relationship with God. Only when we offer up our broken and contrite hearts can we be forgiven for our faults and our sins. This Passover, let us allow ourselves to be free by allowing ourselves to be honest, open, and exposed. We can all imagine quite easily what it feels like to be stuck in narrow and closed off spaces. This Pesach let us give God the sacrifices that make us free: giving up on the hardness of our heads, our hearts, and our false personas to taste the liberation of an honest, complex, and shattered life.