Terumah 2022: The Ark of the Brokenhearted

The world is awash with broken hearts. Each of us hold within us longings, disappointments, anxieties, and it's often hard to know what to do with them. Judaism gives us a different take on brokenheartedness, and how to move forward with grace.

When I think about heartbreak, the artist that embodies it most for me is Leonard Cohen. He built an entire career on it. But he didn’t leave heartbreak only in the province of romance; he saw heartbreak as a deep experience that drives us to the Divine, once saying, “I don’t think anybody undertakes a serious religious examination unless they’ve been creamed somehow by the world. And once that happens, once the heart is broken and once you recognize that the heart is broken, then various paths open to individuals...the broken heart illuminates a path and it is a different path for each broken heart.”

This wisdom from Leonard comes, as much of his wisdom does, from Judaism. A broken heart in our tradition is not something you simply have from having been jilted in a romantic relationship. It is a connection point to God.

The Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, too, focused keenly on heartbreak as a path to God. He taught that a broken heart is a very particular feeling, like a child who has sinned and is pleading before their father, or like baby who is crying when their father distanced himself from them. He also taught that you know you have successfully become broken hearted when that feeling is followed by joy.

These are extremely distinctive images. Take a moment to think back to your own experience of them. Do you have any memories of pleading for forgiveness before a parent for something you truly, deeply regretted? Or even more visceral, the feeling as a small child of a parent leaving? I’d imagine everyone has some memory of just such an experience - the longing mixed with fear; the anxiety that nothing will ever be right again; the sense that it is, in some way, your fault.

This experience of longing, of fear, of anxiety at life can be channeled into feeling heartbroken by God. It provides us a different outlook on our suffering: Not that it is meaningless, but that it is deep longing for a different orientation to God, and therefore to our role in the world.

The central way of connecting to God in the Torah itself is through the mishkan, the tabernacle, the place constructed for God to dwell within. In our Torah portion this week, we read some of the details of its construction. Another mystic in our tradition, Rabbi Eliyahu deVidash, wrote that the centerpiece of the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, is analogous to the human heart. Within it were both sets of Tablets carved at Sinai, the first set which God carved and Moses broke, and the second set which Moses carved himself. “A person's heart must be full of Torah,” he wrote, and similarly, “a person's heart must be a broken heart…so that it can serve as a home for the indwelling of God.” 

And, so too, in our portion this week, do we learn that each person in the community had to be a part of the creation of the Ark. Our commentator Ramban teaches us that the Torah reads “They shall make an ark,” rather than you, as is the case with most of the instructions in this week’s portion, to tell us that each Israelite participated in some way in constructing the Ark, the heart of the Tabernacle, so that each of them would merit filling their hearts with Torah, of connecting their hearts to God. Each Israelite, then, in this process, must have been heartbroken. 

Brokenheartedness is not an easy state to remain in - as Rebbe Nahman taught, in spite of it being an important tool for connection with God, if we remain in the state all the time, we risk slipping into depression. Our ancestors are offering us a way to reframe the longing deep within for reconciliation, for recompense, for a sense of fairness in our lives. When our heart is broken, it can be remade anew. 

Moses, after breaking the first set of tablets for the ark in his heartbreaking encounter with the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, opened his ears and heart to Divine wisdom. God, the Creator of the World, the Designer of our Lives, dwells within the broken vessels of our hearts, dwells within the anguished feelings that comes along with that breaking. 

Just as we did as toddlers longing for a parent’s attention, connection, and guidance, we can use our adult longing to reorient ourselves towards our destiny through the momentary manifestation of clanging and clamoring longing.

We all have heartbreak of one kind or another, some bigger, some lesser, which we carry with us. So, how can we use this brokenness to fill our hearts with Torah, with wisdom, and with a sense of greater clarity as to what it is we are truly longing for? 

We can start by opening ourselves up to the possibility that the healing has already begun. Our Psalmist teaches that God heals the broken hearted, and binds up our wounds. Perhaps these words of wisdom were just for us, now. Perhaps they can lead us away from the distress and anxiety of not getting what we want, of fearing all is lost, of fully and completely losing. Instead, we can turn towards the possibilities that open up from the space left in the break. 

May each of us find our broken hearts opening up to the healing of the wisdom of new directions undiscovered; of possibilities unimagined; of the knowledge that what we long for so badly in the moment may fade away into obscurity in the contrast of what we finally get, and with that fading, may we find our wounds bound up, joined together with the Divine path illuminated in our brokenness, in our openness, moving us towards new joy.