Stronger in the Broken Places

This essay by Rev. Teri originally appeared on the Quest for Meaning website—along with a podcast.

A famous rabbi once said the truth will set you free. Trouble is, the truth is truth, whether we like it or not. The truth is that we will all break in this life. That’s how we learn to recover.

I’ve had a few orthopedic surgeries over this year; I’ve spent most of the last twelve months in physical therapy. I like PT because there’s a certain sense of community there. We all have no illusions: we are all broken—and in some quantifiable, diagnosable way.

Physical therapy can be a pain in the butt. Three times a week, in fact. Often, it’s just painful. After an injury or surgery, the body creates scar tissue. Flesh grows back darker, raised. On horses it’s called proud flesh. Proud flesh; it’s a badge the skin wears. It is stronger, which is good. The tissue is stiffer, though, which is not so good, especially in a joint that’s supposed to move. And so, over and over again, I practice bending.

My therapist told me that I can only heal by breaking. Breaking up the tissue, over and over again. The truth will set us free. Sometimes, the truth makes us stronger.

The other day, my five year-old son found my three-pound hot pink barbells in the basement. They had gotten lonely under an end table for a little while—by which I mean three years. He recognized them, but didn’t know the word for them. He calls them “strengtheners.” We go on, day by day, lifting the weights of our lives, hoping to be a bit better, or at least to have triceps like Michelle Obama.

You feel sore afterwards. It turns out that soreness is actually tiny, tiny tears in the muscles. It’s through breaking the body that it knows how to grow stronger. Resilience is the ability to grow stronger at the broken places.

This month brings the Jewish High Holy Days—the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The days in between are known as the Days of Turning—a time devoted to fixing what has broken in one’s relationships. There is wisdom in admitting that our brokenness is how to make a new start.

At Mt. Sinai, Moses received the commandments from God. He descended the mountain and saw his people dancing around a golden calf, an idol. And Moses smashed the tablets bearing the original commandments, and they shattered to bits.

Later on, Moses received a new set of tablets. But what became of the broken pieces? In the Talmud it says the broken pieces remained precious. They were placed in the most sacred place—the Ark of the Covenant, alongside the intact commandments.

Mystical Judaism teaches that the Ark of the Covenant is a symbol of the human heart. And there, in our hearts, brokenness and wholeness live side by side; we carry them wherever we go.

The Chassidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk may have said it best: “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”