Break down to build back up

Break Down to Build Back Up

We walk around all day and try to keep it together.

We wake up. Morning coffee. Everything’s lined-up and color-coded on our Google Calendars. We even try to leave time in-between tasks and meetings so we can make it from one place to the other without too much rushing. We smile, and greet people with our nicest “how are you’s?” Wish people “nice days.” Plow through our email inboxes. Commute home. Quality time with family. Time with friends. Exercise. Wind down. Read something. Maybe some TV before bed. Head on the pillow, and do it all over again the next day.

Every. Thing. Is. In. Its. Place.

When people say to us “How are you?” we usually respond with “Good” or even “Great! How are you?” Of course, most people probably don’t really want to get into the nitty gritty details of that question with us, and we’re probably ok with that. There are probably only so many people we ourselves could roll up our sleeves for, and get into the inner dimensions of their lives with them.

It turns out that the answer to “How are you?” is a lot more complicated than we might think.

To illustrate, let me ask you this: how would you feel about the opportunity to be instantly transported by yourself to the top of some canyon in the middle nowhere? You know — the kind with a really good echo. You’ll have time beforehand to reflect and think about your life. Mistakes you’ve made. Opportunities you’ve missed. Relationships you let go of. Knowledge you once knew but since have forgotten. Dreams and aspirations you once had but allowed to fade away to the point that you couldn’t remember them vividly even if you tried…

Don’t jump 🙂

No, no. Just give a good, loud, hearty scream. Yell at the top of your lungs.

There’s no one around. Louder.

Feel the yell in your back, in your toes, in your scalp. Draw it from the depths of your soul. From the place where you know things could have been better.

How does that feel?

Don’t be macho.

Of course, you can cry. Cry, my friend. Let it out.

For once, let yourself feel the pain of wishing things were different. If you had the proper space or the proper shoulder to do so, you wouldn’t let yourself cry a bit? Break down a bit?

You weren’t lying when you told the barista at Starbucks that you were “doing great.” On the level of depth they were asking for, your answer was hopefully accurate. A person simply cannot function with the depth of existential questioning that we’re asking of you at the top of this canyon.

That said, in the course of your year, if you don’t dig deep –– if you don’t break down a bit –– it’s a bit dishonest. Who can really, sincerely say that they’ve got it all together? All figured out?

The problem is that since we have to be functional, we create a whole network of puzzle pieces in our lives where each piece keeps the other pieces in place. Questioning everything is just not an option because the whole house of cards could fall.
Which is why, generally, we question nothing. And thus, the status quo persists. Day after day. Week after week. Year after year.

There are, of course, mini-crises (e.g. break-ups, losing a job, some other personal loss), which are fairly effective at motivating real change, but waiting for the next mini-crisis is not a recommended life strategy.

To truly hear the cry of the shofar, you have to have first heard it inside of yourself. This is why it is called זכרון תרועה –– a remembrance of the [shofar] blast. You can only remember what you’ve once heard.

The sound of the shofar is the sound of the soul. It starts with the תקיעה Tekiah sound –– a long, sustained, continuous cry. It comes from the place of unity inside of us. The soul knows what a good, true life is, and if we allow it to come through, it will, without words — since no words could do it justice — cry out in aspiration for a better, brighter, more refined life.

Then, in that cry, from that cry, it breaks down into a שברים Shvarim, which literally means “broken pieces” –– three shorter cries. Like a baby’s cry — waa waa waa. Feeling the pain that it didn’t express its full potential. The cracks are felt in the sound that was just a moment ago an unbroken unity.

And, then, once it allows itself to break down, it “shatters” into a תרועה Teruah –– nine staccato sounds like the uncontrollable, unconsolable whimpers in the depth of a person sobbing — wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa wa.

But, from this inner breakdown, emerges the last Tekiah. One last unified sound.

Only if we allow ourselves to break down — only if we permit ourselves to realize that we don’t have all the answers, can we turn to a unity greater than ourselves and seek to bring it into our lives.

Rosh Hashana –– although the Day of Judgment, and very serious in many ways –– is also a joyous day –– a day dipped in honey. Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — also serious in many ways is said by the Talmud to be one of the happiest days of the year for our people — a day in which we come back to ourselves as individuals and individuals who come back to our people.

The Kotsker Rebbe famously said, “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”

Meaning, if only we allowed ourselves to break down a bit — to realize that we’re not perfect, that we don’t have to be everything for everyone, that we need to be part of the greater community in order to be whole — then, we would ironically be much happier! The reason is simple. This is a much more accurate picture of ourselves and our lives.

This is the joy that shines through Rosh Hashana and will burst through illuminating the culmination of Yom Kippur this Saturday night G-d willing.

This is the honey that sweetens the bitterness if we allow ourselves to savor it. These are the two Tekiahs that surround and uplift the middle broken sobs of the shofar.

May we hear the echoes of the call of the shofar from this Rosh Hashana and remember the call of our souls within us. And may we together soon hear the Tekiah Gedolah, the Great Sound of the shofar that will bring together a world that needs to realize it’s broken.

*These divrei Torah are based on my rebbe Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein’s understanding of the words of the Avnei Nezer zt”l.

About the Author
Rabbi Jack Cohen is the Director of Education of the Jewish Enrichment Center in West Village of New York City, working to create interactive educational programs that grant access to Torah that is deep and relevant to 20-somethings who are thirsty for it. Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi for Meor at the University of Pennsylvania and an Israel programs educator before that. He is currently coauthoring a book on the subject of individuality and self-esteem through the eyes of the Sages, called "Born to Be." He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem after his BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy, and earned his Masters in Education at Harvard last year.
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