their origin is from dust, and their end is to dust
at their peril gathering food, they are like shattered pottery
verses 27 and 28 of the famous piyyut unetane tokef, are especially lovely for the Days of Awe and our understanding of t’shuvah. the general word for human, Adam, is taken from the matter of which s/he was made….adamah (dust/earth). we are but dust….even at our most lofty, we are but stardust. we are still from dust, and our end is dust, on earth as it is in the heavens. and we live by plowing dust, working our hands in the muck of matter for everything material we need…..or crave.
we are each of us an earthenware vessel for the soul that G’d inspires into us. and we have repeatedly said that we must break ourselves in t’shuvah to rebuild. we must go in the way of the world, which is itself broken from the Creation. fasting, prayer, standing, going unwashed (dustful), unrested and stressed is our way in yom kippur….for it is only at our ‘peril’ that we can gather even spiritual food. we are stiff-necked, but it won’t do now, we must be shard-necked to get right.
the image of the shattered pot can only be from a single place in Tanach…in only one spot is the word for earthenware ‘cheres’
coupled with the root for shattered, ie, shin bet resh. Leviticus 6:21
an earthenware pot in which it [chatat (flesh of the sin offering)] was boiled shall be broken
now remember that this is in Leviticus, so it isn’t a metaphorical phrase…this is halachah for what to do with such a pot once it is has been sanctified and can no longer be used in an ordinary human way. can’t go cookin cornpone after you’ve done up the chatat…it is now a pot for G’d alone.
well, earthenware can be made fit for human use again both after holy use and UNholy use! how do you kasher for everyday usage an earthenware vessel that has become unfit via contact with the either the utterly pure and holy or via contact with something impure? Mishnah (Keilim 2:1) and Tosefta (Keilim[Bava Kama] 7:14) specify that breaking is the ONLY way to purify. no need to throw such a vessel away, break it and then reassemble/reattach/rejoin the pieces….voila! fit for use by every rivkah, ike and marty.
it isn’t hard to see the intended connection. we must break our earthenware selves, shattering resistance to the way of humbly walking with G’d through habit, neglect, uncaring, indifference, laziness, ornery stiff-neckedness or deliberate choice. we must break ourselves and re-fuse ourselves in the doing of t’shuvah. it is only because we can break our wrong and thoughtless patterns that we can have hope for something better, stronger, more illuminated. the unetane tokef is not telling us to worry about death by fire, water, earthquake, strangulation, etc, but rather to use what we were created to be to make it better. we are earthen. to purify us, we must break or be broken…hardened hearts will not let neither People nor persons go. this is what is meant by Psalm51:19 when it tells us that “real sacrifice to haShem is a broken spirit”. and this is what R’ Nachman teaches us in urging us to well understand: “if you believe that you can destroy, you must, must believe you can repair”.
never too shattered to be repaired. so it is for the world; so it is in our souls. consider Pesikta d’Rav Kahana for Shabbat Shuva:
R‘ Alexandri said: the usual person doing a task would be embarassed to have to use a broken implement.
but the Holy One, blessed be, doesn’t see it like that. G’d’s work is always done with broken implements….