Have you ever had a very sentimental object break? How did you handle the loss? What did you learn?
My most valued and sentimental possession was broken recently. I have had this object for 46 years and treasured it carefully. This Succot, it broke…but my spirit didn’t. Here is what I learned, and how I found a beautiful blessing in this tremendous disappointment.
I believe I have the world’s oldest etrog. Really! My mom saved it for me when I was 4 years old. It has been carefully wrapped and saved in a special box from Jerusalem given to me by my uncle, a renowned and beloved Rabbi. Below are photos of my family’s Succot celebration when I was 4 and when my uncle from Israel gave us the etrog box from Jerusalem.
I don’t remember receiving the box – It was kind of always there, sitting on the shelf. In 2006, I built my first succah, which was the first to be approved in the Back Bay of Boston. I was so excited for my daughters Caroline and Lucy (then 10 and 7) to have their very own succah and share the joy and excitement I had experienced when I was a young boy. I vividly remember opening the box and discovering the etrog, wrapped in gauze, so fragile and delicate.
The stem of an etrog is called a pitam and it needs to be intact for the etrog to be kosher. During Succot, the etrog and lulav are held together and shaken vigorously in six directions to signify the divine presence all around us and within our hearts.
See Andy do the succah dance!
Because of the etrog’s delicate nature, I was particularly careful with the pitam of my precious etrog. Each day of Succot, I would bring my etrog box into the succah and carefully show it, along with a photo of our family, to each guest. I would explain the significance of my etrog and how it was the oldest one in the world. Each time I displayed it, I became increasingly attached to it. It grew into my heart, as its symbolic shape suggests. (See The Meaning of the Lulav and Etrog). I never let anyone touch the precious etrog — for fear of breaking the pitam. In hindsight, I was so focused on the potential loss, I wasn’t able to fully embrace the blessing of the moment.
This year’s Succot celebration began no differently from previous ones. While I have always hosted family, friends, and strangers, this was my first Succot without my daughters. My eldest, Caroline, graduated from college and moved away. My youngest, Lucy was a freshman at college. It was also my first Succot since turning 50 years old.
I welcomed a group of friends into my succah and led the group in the ritual Succot blessings (over the wine, lulav and etrog) and did the succah dance. As usual, I carefully showed my precious etrog, guarding the delicate and precariously attached stem. As we gathered for a group photo, one of my friends brushed against the lulav which, in turn, knocked over the etrog box containing my treasured, 46-year-old etrog.
I paused, fearing the worst. I slowly opened the box. My greatest fear was realized: I found the small pitam in the bottom of the box. My etrog had broken. It was no longer kosher. I was overcome with many feelings. I was upset, angry and disappointed. I was also afraid. What did it mean to have my favorite possession broken and its religious significance lost?
I decided to meditate. My party, a festival of booths representing both abundance and vulnerability was still in full flow, but I was feeling numb and disconnected from the festivities.
Thankfully, my Rabbi had come to my Succot celebration. I asked him to join me for a private moment, away from the celebration, away from my broken pitam. We talked. I shared how upset I was. Surely, there must be a blessing to be found. I paused, breathed and reflected. I simply couldn’t let the broken stem ruin my celebration or hinder my happiness.
Later, I decided to explore Jewish traditions for deeper meaning. The ancient Jewish wedding ritual of breaking a glass following the ceremony came to mind. In great moments of joy, we are supposed to pause and recognize that suffering also exists. The breaking of the glass causes this pause and also signifies that the strength of the marriage bond can handle adversity. This custom dates back to the Talmud.
Mar bar Rabina made a marriage feast for his son. He observed that the rabbis present were very gay. So he seized an expensive goblet worth 400 zuzim and broke it before them. Thus he made them sober. Berakhot 5:2
I also thought of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Moses smashed the Ten Commandments in a fit of rage over the Israelites building a golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments were broken, but never forgotten.
And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount. Exodus 32:19
I then considered the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi.
Wabi connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and manmade objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which lend uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.
“Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Powell, Richard R. (2004). Wabi Sabi Simple. Adams Media.
I also recalled the saying: “A broken heart allows light in”. I have experienced personal loss and challenges over the years and discovered inner strength and faith during these periods of great adversity.
Finally, I remembered a story my Rabbi shared at a high holiday sermon:
A king had a precious diamond that fell and cracked. The king was upset and devastated over his loss. His spectacularly beautiful diamond had broken. A jeweler said he could repair it and the king offered the jeweler the chance to try. When the jeweler returned with the diamond, the king was disappointed when he examined the newly repaired diamond. “The crack is still there!” he proclaimed sadly. The jeweler said, “Please look more closely, there is now a rose carved into your diamond and the crack is now transformed into the rose’s stem… the cracked diamond is now a beautifully flowered rose.”
I believe the universe presented me with the broken pitam as way to learn acceptance. In my first fifty years of life, I have been fortunate to experience my Succah of Abundance, alongside great vulnerability in loss and mourning. In these sad and difficult times, I have experienced my Succah of the Wilderness – my true vulnerability. Abundance is much sweeter knowing the pain of loss. I can now experience Daynenu — true gratitude for my blessings. In addition, I have found that faith, both in the divine spirit and myself, has carried me during the difficult moments of vulnerability and loss.
In an interesting twist of events, I discovered there is now a variation of etrog that is pitamless. A kosher etrog without a stem! With these etrogs, there is no worry or concern about the pitam falling off and becoming posul (not kosher).
I am happy I had the chance to share my etrog, in all its vulnerability, with friends and family over the years. Had I kept it in its case and never showed it to anyone, it would be intact and in its original form. However, we would have all missed out on so many important discussions and lessons. Truly experiencing life sometimes requires the risk of loss.
In Japanese wabisabi thought, you actually fill the cracks of precious broken pottery with a gold filling. The concept is to highlight and celebrate the imperfections. And so, I plan on painting some gold dust on my broken stem.
I also developed a new attitude. I no longer view the etrog as “my etrog.” I realize my mom entrusted me to be its caretaker. I have treasured and protected it for myself over the years. I now fully embrace the responsibility and privilege to be the etrog’s caretaker for my family and community. In this role, the greatest blessing has been sharing it with friends and family. I fervently hope that one day my daughters will similiarly treasure and caretake the etrog and share its blessings broadly.
Next year, I look forward to sharing not only the beauty of the precious etrog but the lessons of its broken stem. In many ways, the broken stem truly exemplifies the fragility and vulnerability of the Succah of the Wilderness in which the Israelites lived during the 40 years in the wilderness. Only after understanding our inner vulnerability and experiencing our collective broken pitam, we can truly live in our succah of abundance in the Promised Land.