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Shattered and Whole

June 23, 2016 | by Ilana Kendal

Being Jewish means dancing with the conflicting combination of pain and joy.

My news feed these days is a bizarre combination of weaponry and weddings. Postings about terrorism and bloodshed intermingle with images of happy brides and vacation pictures. Do I congratulate or cry? Is the world falling apart or is it simply beginning?

It’s not a new dilemma. I wonder this at almost every wedding I attend. And with wedding season upon us, I’ve been puzzling over this quite a bit.

Picture the scene: bride and groom stand side by side under the chuppah, ready to embark on the journey of a lifetime. Blessings have been said. All is coming together as it should. And then, in the last moments of the ceremony, the groom breaks a glass underfoot to mark the still incomplete world we live in. A physical reminder: all is not as it should be.

We live in a world alive with pain and destruction. We are in exile. And then, we shout “mazel tov!” Really? Should this not strike us as a little strange to celebrate in that moment? It seems to me more appropriate to linger in that place of mourning.

Instead of driving a wedge between sadness and joy, we marry the two.

But no, we launch full on into celebration. Instead of driving a wedge between sadness and joy, we marry the two. Maybe that is the very moment we should be shouting mazel tov, that we are able to build and hope in a world so deeply fractured.

As a guest at a wedding last week, I was once again reminded of this capacity to build. I saw an old friend, a woman who’d lost her young son to cancer over a decade ago. There are some wounds even time cannot touch. Her eyes filled with tears as she remarked, "No one knows the pain we are in.” Then a smile flashed across her face, “We don’t feel like going out, but we do. And that’s when the strength comes.”

As her son’s friends marry and have children he will remain forever 13. All this was said over appetizers and set to musical accompaniment. There might have been a time I’d bristle at the dissonance: how can we nibble spring rolls and speak of such pain in the same breath? We were then interrupted by a booming announcement: the bride and groom were entering the hall. Joining hands in the hora, we didn’t leave the sadness with the appetizers; we took it with us to dance floor.

As Jews, we are not an either/or kind of people. We are a both/and sort of nation. We know how to live in a world steeped in pain and at the same time hold onto hope. We don’t have to choose. We can’t.

We have a long history of dealing with shattered dreams. Moses, upon coming down from Mount Sinai, tablets in hand, found a nation gone spiritually AWOL. He may have held God’s very words and wisdom in his hands, but we were busy worshipping a golden calf, having panicked into thinking our leader was never coming back. In a moment of anger, he smashed those tablets. We had fallen down on the job. Fast forward 80 days of repentance and efforts to rebuild, and we are gifted a second set of tablets. A second chance at receiving the Divine here on earth.

What happened to that first set? Did it get swept into the dust pile of eternity? No. Tradition tells us we collected those broken pieces. And then we treasured them, carrying both the shattered and the whole tablets along our journey through the desert. Plan B only came about because of that initial breaking.

We are not meant to ignore the messy parts of our lives. We don’t need to pretend it’s all been perfect and gone-as-we-wished. We get to bring the lessons of this-is-where-it-fell-apart with us. If we choose to collect the lessons of plan A, we get to live in the light of plan B.

The light is that much brighter when we make room for both the broken and the whole.

The ability to carry the parts of ourselves that are still hurting while we dance hand in hand is the secret of wedding season. We may toast the bride and groom with words to match the flowers, but we know life is made of more daily grind than fancy wedding sentiments. The biggest triumph is to shout “Mazel tov!” when all is not-yet-perfect. Life is not an either/or reality, it’s a both/and kind of world. The pain might be deeper but the light is that much brighter when we make room for both the broken and the whole.

And maybe that’s the point. To live in a way where wrapped right into the pain is the celebration itself. The shattered pieces don’t belong in the garbage. They belong in there right alongside the moments of joy. My Facebook feed is still a mixture of smiling faces and scary headlines. As for this wedding season, I will see you on the dance floor.

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