Broken and whole: a d’varling for Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot

“There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”

In one of his teachings on Sukkot, the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet writes:

This is wholeness: a person with a broken heart… and in every place that God dwells, there is wholeness. God makes every incompleteness whole.

This is wholeness: a person with a broken heart. At first glance it’s almost a koan. Broken equals whole? How does that work, exactly? I spent some time with this koan this week, and here’s how I’ve come to understand it this year.

A person whose heart isn’t broken, at least some of the time, isn’t paying attention. A person whose heart isn’t sometimes cracked-open by the exquisite and sometimes devastating fragility of this world isn’t paying attention.

A person whose heart is so impermeable — whether to our dangerously warming planet, or to the inevitable griefs and losses that come with loving human beings who disappoint us, and who will die — that’s not wholeness. That’s bypassing.

Some of you told me that after Yom Kippur you felt like your skin was too thin and your hearts were so open that re-entry into the “regular world” was almost more than you could bear. Sukkot says: keep your heart open a little longer.

Sukkot is an opportunity to keep our hearts open wide. We build and decorate these fragile little houses. Their roofs have to be made out of plants that are harvested from the earth, and open enough to let in the stars and the rain.

A sukkah is almost a sketch of a house, a parody of a house. A hint of a house. You can see the outlines of a house, but it’s flimsy and the roof leaks and as soon as it’s built, it starts succumbing to the rain and the wind and the weather.

Our bodies are like sukkot. Our lives are like sukkot. The whole planet is like a sukkah. It’s heartbreaking, when we let ourselves stop and feel it. But here’s the thing: when we let ourselves stop and feel it, that’s when we let God in.

If that word doesn’t work for you, try another one. When we let ourselves feel, we let compassion in. When we let ourselves feel, we let wholeness in. When we let ourselves feel, we let hope in. We let in grace, and kindness, and truth.

In the Torah reading assigned to today, the Shabbat that falls during Sukkot, we read about Moshe asking to see God’s face. God says, no one can look upon me and live, but I’ll shelter you in this cleft of rock and you can see my afterimage.

And then God passes by, proclaiming who God is: the source of mercy and compassion, kindness and truth. When we let ourselves feel, we feel what hurts — and we also feel what uplifts. What endures beyond every broken place.

Sukkot is called zman simchateinu, “the time of our rejoicing.” In my understanding, rejoicing doesn’t mean pretending away what hurts. It means authenticity. It means opening our hearts to everything: the bitter and the sweet.

This Shabbat during Sukkot, may we be able to open our hearts — and when we do, may we be blessed with comfort and uplift and hope to balm every broken place, and may that strengthen us to bring hope and justice into our fragile world.

The teaching cited in this post is teaching א as collected in The Language of Truth — on page קד in the Hebrew and 357 in the English. This is the d’varling Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI on Shabbat morning (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

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