Smash the Patriarchy: Rabbi Adina's Rosh Hashanah Day Drash

Smash the Patriarchy
Rabbi Adina Allen
Berkeley Community High Holy Days, JCC East Bay
Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5779 / 2018

Jewish weddings end with a peculiar ritual. After the final blessing is said, as those gathered are riding high on the magic of love, we place a glass near the couple’s feet. Then, in the presence of all, they stomp upon it, breaking it into a million pieces. In this moment of tenderness and connection, the act that concludes the ceremony and starts their new lives together is one of shattering.

Why do we break the glass? Some say it is to scare away evil spirits. Some, to remember the brokenness of the world. Some, to remind us of the frailty of human relationships. The glass substitutes for us, “as this glass shatters so may our marriage never break.”

We are now at the tail end of wedding season. I’ve attended or officiated close to ten weddings this summer alone. Having witnessed some beautiful glass stomping, I think there is another purpose this custom serves.

Rather than preventing against breakages in the marriage, perhaps the shattering of the glass embodies exactly what we must do in relationships: shatter, again and again. Shatter our fantasies of what might have been; shatter our conceptions of the other as they grow and evolve; shatter our concepts of self as we, too, change and embrace new aspects of who we are throughout our life.

Witnessing things breaking can be painful and hard, actively breaking them even harder. Shattering the glass at this moment of intense joy and love invites in a blessing: may the breaking we do in our lives make space for greater wholeness and connection, and may we do it in community, with love.

Things are breaking all around us in our world right now. And there is so much that we are being called upon to break. The ways in which we’ve conceived of wealth and race and borders and citizenship and family structure and gender and power and governance and commerce and care; of responsibility to one another and responsibility for ourselves. This year has been a year in which the fault lines have been revealed in broad daylight. We can feel in our body the weight of these ruptures. The center no longer holds. Some things are breaking under their own weight, others require active smashing. In our tradition we have the custom of smashing the glass, and we have the biblical drama that embraces the act of smashing.

Moses shatters the first set of tablets inscribed by God upon seeing the Golden Calf. He smashes out of anger, out of fear, out of the realization, perhaps, that the stones he held in his hands were insufficient given what he saw happening all around him. He was not slow or sentimental. He came, he saw, he smashed and then he went back to the drawing board to create anew.

Moses goes back up the Mountain to create a second set as a replacement for the first. Notably different, this second set Moses himself inscribes, rather than God. Midrash Rabbah goes further in elaborating on the differences between the first and second set of tablets, saying that the second set includes not only the 10 commandments, but the entire rabbinic corpus: Midrash, Halacha and Aggadah (Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 46:1). It is this set of tablets that has endured.

The first set was inadequate. It didn’t take into account our need for both laws and stories, for both the high principles and the day to day understanding of what it means to really live these ideas out. Our principles need to be revisited again and again, broken open to help us understand new complexities of life.

What has murder come to mean? Is it only the hand that shoots the gun? Or does it include lawmakers, lobbyists, manufacturers, stockholders? What is stealing? Our data, our privacy, land, water - who decides to whom these belong? Honor your father and mother / don’t covet your neighbor’s wife - how many personal accounts do we need to hear before we decide time’s up - we need a commandment that uncouples women from men or their role in the family - to be honored, respected and protected in their own right?

Breaking something open to enlarge our understanding is a messy, challenging process. What do we do with the remains of what’s been destroyed?

Moses does not leave the shattered pieces behind. We might assume that the first version should be buried - following the Jewish practice of what to do with sacred objects that have been damaged - or even discarded, as it is seemingly no longer of use. However, the Talmud teaches, “luchot ve’shivrey luchot munachim be’aron,” both the whole and the broken tablets were kept in the ark (Bava Batra 14b). Rather than thrown away, the shards were placed in the most sacred place. There, clattering around in the Holy Ark, the broken pieces rattled and shook, keeping time with the people as they walked toward the Promised Land.

Heavy with sharp edges, cumbersome and loud, why keep the remains of what’s been shattered and hold it as dearly as that which is whole? What is left for these pieces now?

On this question, the Yismach Moshe teaches that we cherish the pieces, not to honor a system that no longer serves, but rather to honor the process of shattering itself (Parashat Eikev (105a)). Keeping the shattered tablets with us is but rather as to remind us of the power and possibility unleashed by the act of shattering. We break the ways in which we have been habituated to see ourselves, to treat one another and to construct our society so that new ways have the space to emerge.

Keeping the shattered pieces reminds us that all we’ve known is not all there is. There are other possibilities for how we as human beings may relate to one another. If we follow where the fractures begin, we’ll find them there, already poking through.

Today we smash the systems that have governed us for so long but, like the first set of tablets, are no longer sufficient for the world we are creating. We smash, at times, like Moses, actively dismantling systems of oppression; at other times, it is more subtle, quieter - we withdraw our energy from the old and use it instead to envision and build the new.

According to Rashi, when Moses smashes the first set of tablets, God says “asher shavarta, yishar ko’ach!” Essentially, that smashing that you did - great work! (Rashi Devarim 34:12)

At this season of new beginnings, may we take God’s encouragement to heart. May we have the courage and fortitude to smash all the systems of oppression that diminish us and keep us apart from one another, and the curiosity and intrepidness to seek out the ones that may make us whole. May we hold the remains of what’s been broken together with that which is intact to remind us that the work of growth and healing is cyclical: breaking things apart can lead to greater wholeness, and what feels whole today may need to be broken apart tomorrow.

And, like beloveds under the chuppah on their wedding day, may we be blessed do so in community, from love, with joy in the smashing and faith in the future.

Mazal tov and Shanah Tovah!

5779, Women, Rosh HashanahJeff Kasowitz