Broken Heart Prescription
It has been a hard week for me. A dear friend has died, and after a funeral and shiva and another memorial abundant in words and donuts and sparkles (all of these her loves), broken hearts remain. More often than not I feel struck still, unable to think, days spent filling out nothingness in slow stepping time.
I don’t frequent the darkest rooms of the heart, depression, sorrow, grief. But I find myself here today, and from within, I ask the question that is always at the center of my teachings. What is the Jewish contribution to the human experience of this place? What’s the wisdom, the spiritual intuition that the tradition gives to those who find themselves where I am now?
A good dictionary offers the word yagon, grief, denoting a far heavier experience than the more common atzev, sadness. It’s used sparingly in the Torah, once to describe the experience of losing a child. Jacob makes it known that Benjamin will never leave his side. He already lost Joseph. If he were to lose another, grief would carry him down to hell.
The sage who knew this place inside out though, is Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Modern biographers diagnose him as manic-depressive, and many of his teachings carry beautiful images and metaphors that speak to the relationship of pain, brokenness, beauty, and healing. Here’s one. Nachman says:
A broken heart and depression are not the same thing whatsoever. A broken heart is in the heart, but depression originates in the spleen, and its source is really from a place we call the dark side. And god hates it. But a broken heart is beloved before the holy one, because of how terribly precious it is.
It would be great if a person could carry their broken heart all day, but people are prone to slip from broken-heartedness to sorrow. Instead, they should choose a certain hour of the day, and let their heart break. That is, they should enter contemplation and break their own heart, allowing God’s presence to bear witness. And the rest of the day, they can remain entirely in joy.
What a beautiful teaching on sorrow and joy, attention, balance and subtlety. That our hearts can be broken – it’s a gift of God, not a curse. And more than a punishment carried out on a powerless subject, heartbreak is a skill, and we can play at its mastery. Heartbreak is necessary for the goodness of the world – it’s a wellspring of compassion and empathy.
And we remain human. Flawed and small, fragile, wrecked swiftly, sometimes. We are only capable of so much heartbreak. But where the instinct might be to run from her entirely – we should welcome her sad beauty with open arms. Only then is her presence a blessing. I carry your heart, (I carry it in my heart).
Rabbi Zach Fredman
Ps – Here is a stunning piece of writing by Adina Talve Goodman