On the cusp of the secular new year I sat at my dining room table with three friends, a notepad and a handful of pens, and a tealight in a little dish. As the old year waned, we planned to write down some of the things we wanted to let go of, the baggage we didn’t want to carry with us into the new year.
On my scraps of paper, I jotted down phrases like “the sorrow of my divorce” and “tendency to diminish my own needs” and “feeling silenced.” I felt both humbled and hopeful: humbled by the recognition that there’s much I need to shed, and hopeful at the prospect of truly letting those things go.
When we were done writing, we went around the table and took turns reading each scrap of paper aloud and then holding it in the fire until it began to burn. We dropped the flaming bits of paper into the dish that held the tealight. We burned old griefs and bad habits.
When we were done, one of my friends suggested a variation. We each wrote blessings for each of the others, read those aloud, and lit them on fire too — not because we wanted the blessings to burn up, but because the act of setting them aflame felt like a way of offering the intentions up to God.
As we finished reading and burning our hopes and blessings for each other, we heard a loud crack. We promptly blew out the flame, but it was too late — the ceramic dish holding the tealight had broken in two.
I felt a moment of sadness. The dish was a gift, something I had brought with me from my former life as a married woman. Beginning my first (secular) new year of this new chapter of my life by breaking a treasure seemed like a poor omen.
But then it occurred to me that the dish could be repaired — and could become even more beautiful in the repairing. Enter the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken objects are repaired with gold. Their broken places are not something to be ashamed of or to be hidden — rather, the broken places become something to celebrate. Their beauty grows with every repaired crack.
When I first learned about kintsugi, it made me think of a teaching from Talmud about how one purifies a clay vessel that has become ritually impure: by breaking it and then gluing it back together again.
Torah teaches that the first human was made from earth or clay. While that’s obviously allegorical, I resonate with the idea that we — like our clay pots — are fragile and breakable, and that coming into contact with grief or death or trauma can leave us feeling shattered. The way out of that feeling is not to minimize it or to pretend it away, but to glue ourselves back together again with awareness that our very brokenness is part of what makes us whole.
Or, as the sage Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.” Surely that is true of our breakable human hearts.
My cracked ceramic dish has been repaired. I don’t have liquid gold on hand, so I repaired it with Krazy Glue, and adorned the repair with gold nail polish.
The crack makes the plate far more beautiful. Because, when I see the crack, I remember the moment of breaking — the letting-go of the old year’s griefs, and the embracing of the coming year’s blessings. It’s beautiful too because I’m not trying to hide the brokenness: I’m hanging a light on it. I’m letting the brokenness enhance the beauty.
I hope that in the new year I can do the same thing with my own heart: not try to put a bandage over the places where I feel broken, but lift them up, paint them gold, and let them shine.
Since 2003, Rachel Barenblat has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Ordained as a rabbi and spiritual director, she serves Congregation Beth Israel and is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. Her books of poetry include 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018).