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Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson Headshot

The Crack Is What Lets in the Light

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I was traveling with my family to Independence Hall, the Philadelphia locus of the American Revolution. In the middle of this storied courtyard stands a large bell. The entire world knows that bell. It was hung in the Philadelphia State House in 1753, and it sounded to summon the pre-Independence Colonial Legislature into session, and it was used after the Revolution for the Pennsylvania State Legislature as well.

The intriguing idiosyncrasy of this bell is that when it arrived, it cracked right away. Not once, but twice, American craftspeople repaired the bell by filling in the crack with new metal. And yet it cracked again, and then it cracked again. Apparently the bell wanted to be broken; it had something to say. In the 1830s the abolitionist movement was gaining steam; Americans were awakening to the realization that slavery was economically harmful and morally repugnant.

Some bold Americans started to organize against slavery as an ethical and political imperative. The abolitionists were the very first to label this bell the Liberty Bell, and they elevated it as a symbol of American independence and personal freedom.

In 1846 the Liberty Bell cracked for the final time, and at that point people stopped trying to fill the gap or to ring it.

Looking at this magnificent bell I realized that this bell -- cracked and silent -- resonates more loudly around the globe than any bell that is whole.

The poet Leonard Cohen writes:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

There Is A Crack In Everything, That's How The Light Gets In

Now there are people who resist the insights born of brokenness. One of the ways we most oppress ourselves is by assuming that we, alone, are shattered while everyone else is whole. We tell ourselves, "Look at that family, how perfect they are. Look at their home, how gorgeous and clean it always is", and we assume that we are the only fractured and broken vessels struggling to make meaning of our fragmented lives. Not only do individuals try to mandate a false wholeness, but there are social forces that seek to impose that same impossible perfection on us, telling us that if we are broken, we no longer retain any utility or worth.

There are entire industries in this era -- blogs, magazines, and films -- dedicated to the self-hating proposition that we should feel fat, old, and ugly, that we should do surgery on ourselves, or straighten something, or bend some part, or snip something, or be lighter, or darker, and then, then we'll finally have dignity; then we'll be whole.

There are aspects of Judaism itself which struggle with this ideal. There is even a passage in the Torah reflecting this smothering perfectionism. It imposes that the High Priest was to be of whole body; no physical blemishes in order to serve in the Temple, the same toxic notion of physical perfection that bullies us into internalizing that we are somehow degraded, inferior, and unworthy.

Against this smothering and false perfection, the ancient rabbis muster a pivotal argument.
What happens, they debate, in the case of an individual who violates one single commandment of the Torah? (Remember, in theory, the entire Torah was given by God, so our obligation ought to be to implement its every command. This all-or-nothing mentality is still present today).

What surprises me is not that some rabbis would hold to such an opinion. What remains astonishing is that the ancient rabbis as a group resisted that perfectionist perspective. Rabbi Meir argues that an am ha-aretz (an uneducated person) who accepted upon themselves the laws of Haverut, the laws of a stricter level of purity, if suspected to merely one violation of a particular law is therefore presumed to be violating the entire Torah.

According to Rabbi Meir, you can't trust this person for any legal matter: he cannot give testimony, enjoy communal privileges, engage in commerce. For Rabbi Meir, any single imperfection ruins the whole, such a flawed, cracked person loses all standing.

It is not remarkable that Rabbi Meir would hold out this all-or-nothing view (that either you are perfect or you are worthless) what's amazing to me is that the hakhamim, the Sages, reject it. To the contrary, they insist that the violation of a single commandment renders a person suspect for violating only that one commandment. One's overall reputation and status remain intact. That position becomes the normative opinion of rabbinic Judaism. No one can implement the Torah perfectly. Everyone is doing the best we can with the choices we face. So the ancient rabbis teach, "The Torah was not given to perfect angels (Yoma 30a)." The Torah was given to fallible, imperfect, striving human beings.

Where Does That Leave Us?

Inscribed on that beautiful, broken Liberty Bell is a verse from the Book of Leviticus: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof." Not to those who are tall, to those who are thin, to those who are young, to those are gorgeous -- proclaim liberty to everyone.

Liberty belongs to us all, broken, shattered, struggling and striving. And beautiful because of our imperfections.

According to the early Kabbalists, in order for God to create this imperfect world, God had to withdraw into God's self, in what's known as tzimtzum and then God explode energy outward, creating a material universe. At the same moment that God began to pour spiritual energy into the physical holding dock of material reality, the divine energy was so great that perfect reality shattered. There was a crack in the universe. And it is because of the crack in the universe that the physical world exists. It is the brokenness of God's creation, not its wholeness, that allows us to live. The medieval author, Menachem Azariah of Fano writes, "Just as a seed cannot grow to perfection as long as it maintains its original form -- growth coming only through decomposition -- so these points could not become perfect configurations as long as they maintained their original form, but only by breaking." There is a crack in everything -- that's how the light gets in.

This life is not for the perfect. It is not for the flawless. It is not for the whole. If you are like me, there are parts of you that are very good, and there are parts of you that are aching. There are parts of you that strive and fall short; there are parts of you that feel broken. Those are the parts that let in the light. Don't run from your imperfections. Don't hide from your brokenness. Broken bones re-grow stronger at the very location where they are broken. Those are the spots where the light will shine through.

Our God is a God of broken crockery, a God of shattered hearts, who despite the challenges of life, invites us to pick ourselves up and continue to move forward. And we, an ancient, broken people, we have journeyed on our way across the millennia bringing a message of hope to a broken planet.

Do not despair, do not surrender, do not stop.