The “Master Key” Learning Through Heartbreak

11 September 2015
27 Elul 5775 

This morning we gathered as a school to remember and commemorate the horrific and heartbreaking events of 9/11. After a brief ceremony, students chose different ways to engage with the events of the day, from hearing personal stories of that day to the artistic memory of the twin towers to a theological discussion about God and suffering. It is particularly poignant to be remembering 9/11 on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and at the very beginning of a new school year.

Reflecting on the state of our yet unfinished project of American democracy and what this country needs from us as citizens, my teacher, Parker Palmer, wrote a blog post this week about the “politics of the brokenhearted.” In a short video, Parker describes the effort to channel his experience of heartbreak into activism and creativity, rather than disillusionment. He finds inspiration in Abraham Lincoln, who “was a broken-hearted man who learned how to let his heart break open rather than apart . . . who learned how to become a healer rather than a divider.”

Coincidentally (or not), the theme of heartbreak was also the topic of Erica Brown’s weekly d’var Torah, in which she describes the spiritual and emotional importance of heartbreak and vulnerability. She shares a Hasidic story about the shofar and the process of teshuva (repentance, returning, reconnecting with self and with God):

“After the shofar blowing was completed, the Baal Shem Tov said ‘In a king’s palace there are hundreds of rooms, and on the door of each room there is a different lock that requires a special key to open it. But there is a master key which can open all the locks. That is a broken heart. When a person sincerely breaks his heart before God, his prayers can enter through all the gates and into all the rooms of God’s celestial palace.’” In Erica’s own words, “our vulnerabilities bring us to faith because they wipe away the veneer of independence, self-reliance and confidence that we use to walk comfortably in a world that demands them.”

This is a powerful message as we begin a new year of personal and intellectual growth and development. Of course, as a high school, we work to develop intellectual and moral self-confidence and independence in our students. At the same time, for our children and for many of us, too much confidence and comfort can mask the honest senses of vulnerability, of not-knowing, and of imperfection that are actually the starting points for real learning, growth, and change.

Whether we mishandle a relationship with a friend, do not get into our dream college, or feel paralyzed in the face of a math problem, coming to terms with the world’s and our own limitations and disappointments, both large and small, can be difficult, even heartbreaking. Yet, often our most transformative learning and change require going through this heartbreak, rather than around it.

Some of the questions I am asking myself as we enter Rosh Hashanah and begin the school year, include:

  • From an intellectual growth perspective, when do I feel broken-hearted about all that I don’t yet know or might never know? About concepts I cannot understand or problems I cannot solve? About the fact that others seem smarter than I am or get things more quickly than I do?
  •  From a moral perspective, when do I feel broken-hearted about the gap between the way I know our world, our community, our school, and ourselves could be and the way that they are?
  • How can I allow my experiences of broken-heartedness to transform into more creativity, into harder work, into faith in and bold pursuit of the possible, rather than into cynicism and checking-out of the game of learning, personal change, and tikkun olam?

My blessing for us as a school and a community is that we support each other in the sacred work of living these questions with compassion and empathy and that we invite honest self-reflection together with courageous dreaming. May we genuinely welcome and create space for a diversity of commitments, passions, and perspectives. With joy and, when necessary, heartbreak, may we inspire one another to actively engage with the world as learners and leaders.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Marc Baker


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s