Hope and Healing — A Moment of Mishnah
by Bradley Shavit Artson
Embedded in the most dry and technical concerns, we sometimes uncover an eruption of light that can break through the smothering darkness. In our lives, in our sacred writings, and in the innermost chambers of our souls we can uncover these sparks of light, warmth, and hope.
Consider the ancient rabbinic discussion of the laws of purity and impurity. The question at hand -- itself brittle and dry -- is about the kind of vessels that should be used to carry sacrificial material. Zevahim 88a (Mishnah) opens with a simple assertion: "The vessels for liquids sanctify liquids, and the measures for dry matter sanctify dry matter. A liquid vessel does not sanctify dry matter, nor does a dry [measure] sanctify a liquid." Dry works for dry; wet works with wet. This is the way the world appears when we are despondent -- bad things happen to me, good things happen to someone else. Why does it seem as if other people's lives are charmed?
But the Mishnah refuses to leave matters in this depressive trap. It isn't enough to assert that dry goes with dry and wet goes with wet. What happens when life is more complex than our sorrow and our fear might suggest? What about when something that once worked becomes broken in the course of its use?
"If holy vessels were perforated yet they can be used for the same purpose as when whole, they sanctify [what is placed in them]; if not, they do not sanctify." Here the Mishnah speaks to the hole in our heart: I was once robust; I was once strong; I was once invincible. The passage of time, the weight of the tasks, and life's wounds have punctured my imperviousness. I am breaking. Does that mean I am now useless? Human garbage? No, answers the Mishnah's anonymous (and hence authoritative) voice: even when broken, if we can still perform some of what we were intended for, still serve some of the role we are called to, then we still sanctify. We still have a holy mission and a purpose. We still reflect the divine image of God.
The Mishnah concludes with one last insistence: "And all these sanctify only in the holy." Whole or broken, disabled or not-yet-disabled, all are holy. The place where we can carry each other, sanctify each other, is a place of holiness. And, for us, the place of holiness is the place in which every one counts -- a place of dignity, inclusion, and love.
A last word: After Mishnah comes Gemara; after description comes reflection. The rabbis of the Talmud (specifically the great sage Shmuel) offer a profound image of the blessing to be found amid challenge, illness, and loss. Shmuel said: "The service vessels sanctify only when whole. They sanctify only when full, and they sanctify only from their interior." Whether the vessels are broken or whole, whether they function still or no longer, their holiness abides in these three virtues: wholeness, fullness, and interiority.
When we are whole -- not in a superficial, corporeal way, but whole in our own centeredness, in knowing who we are and what we stand for -- and when we are full (full of love for ourselves, for each other, for creation, for God), and when we shine to the world our truest selves (isn't that what interiority is all about?), then whether physically broken or not, whatever our degree of function, we are able to connect to the holiness just under the surface -- ours and God's -- to continue to sanctify ourselves, each other, and Creation.
Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson, a contributing editor for Tikkun, is dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University. Since his ordination he has advocated for inclusion, love, peace, and justice.
His articles in Tikkun include "Excellence in a Mendacious World," July/August 2000; "God is Becoming: Consolation in the Face of Tragedy," May/June 2009; and "Clay in the Potter's Hands: Human Evolution in a Self-Creating World By Bradley Shavit Artson," January/February 2009.
Source Citation: Shavit Artson, Bradley. 2011. Hope and Healing — A Moment of Mishnah. Tikkun 26(1): 30