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Broken Relationships

Rabbi Richard Plavin

Do you like to travel? Do you seek out unusual museums? Perhaps I could suggest a few. For example, the British Lawnmower Museum in Lancashire. That should be fascinating. I’ll bet the Museum of Toilets in New Delhi is really someplace to go. Or the Banana Museum in Auburn, Washington is likely an intriguing site. The Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas, is devoted to the study of barbed wire. That could hold your attention.

This summer Lisa and I spent a day in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Following a lovely, meandering path we made our way to the upper region of the city, the historic Old Town. When we got there we found clear signage at each corner directing us to the various sites. Following from place to place we finally came upon a museum we could never have imagined: the Museum of Broken Relationships. This was too intriguing to skip.

We speculated that perhaps this museum told the story of the break up of Yugoslavia. Not at all. It turned out to be much more straightforward than that. This is a museum about the experience and aftermath of breaking up with someone you once loved or still love; a public space consecrated to the universal experience of sadness and loss. The premise is very simple. Disappointed lovers donate an object that held meaning for them in a relationship and tell their story in a few sentences.

One particularly terse example was the can of love incense donated by someone in Bloomington, Indiana, accompanied by just two words: “Doesn’t work.”

The exhibits display a variety of objects that people now find intolerable or no longer need to hold on to:  the garden dwarf thrown at an arrogant husband’s car; the iron used to press a wedding suit; the shaving kit bought as a birthday present. Most of the stories are truly heart wrenching. A Turkish woman donated a Champagne bottle, which she thought would be popped on the first anniversary of her new relationship, when she expected her boyfriend to propose. Instead he walked away. The bottle is still full. In another exhibit we read this: “In a Zagreb hospital I met a beautiful, young and ambitious social worker from the Ministry of Defense.” This note is from a Croatian man and is displayed next to a prosthetic leg. Apparently she taught him how to care for the device, and yet, sadly, it endured longer than their love. “It was made of sturdier material!” he writes.

Broken relationships make for a fascinating and very unusual museum. Each and every exhibit was poignant and I found myself totally engrossed. As I walked from display to display, I realized that I was thinking about the coming High Holiday season. In fact, this holiday is about relationships: some broken, some still whole, and others yet to unfold.

Tomorrow I will talk about our relationship with God, and how that might develop in the coming year. Tonight, I think about our relationships in the interpersonal realm. At the holiday table each year I look around and take pride in my family, but I note the absence of some once familiar faces. That’s why we have the custom of visiting graves of loved ones just before or during the holiday season; to say “I am thinking about you,” “ I miss you.”

But I also note with joy the new faces, as the chain of tradition goes on. The most meaningful moment of the holiday for me is the Sh’hechiyanu prayer at candle lighting on Rosh Hashanah night. My heart swells with thanksgiving for all my blessings.

This summer, at my oldest granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah celebration, for the first time ever, we were gathered together under one roof: three daughters, three sons-in-law and seven grandchildren. And we all got along. No broken relationships, thank God.
But not everyone is so blessed, and I am very cognizant of that. People tell me all the time about not getting along with siblings, or how a former spouse has poisoned the relationship they had with their children, or how their co-workers make life so difficult.

This holiday can be and should be an opportunity to renew and repair relationships. Contact someone who used to be important in your life and still should be. Perhaps you should ‘Friend’ them, to use some contemporary lingo. In the olden days the way these things were done was on the telephone, and you actually heard the voice of the person you wanted to contact. That still has many advantages. Way back in those old days, South Central Telephone had a television commercial that became very well known. If it had appeared nowadays, we would say ‘It went viral.’ I just watched it again on YouTube. The renowned football coach Bear Bryant is sitting at his desk. He puts down the phone, turns to the camera and tells us that on the first day of practice each year, with the new students, he urges them to keep in touch with their family. He says that he instructs the students to write a post card home that very day. He continues, “You know, we keep them pretty busy, but they always have time to pick up the phone and call. It’s real important to keep in touch. Have you called your Mama today? I wish I could.” That last line about wishing he could call his Mama was not planned. It was an ad-lib and it accounts entirely for the success of the message; a message as important today as it was back then.

Our Torah readings both tomorrow and on the second day of the holiday are about relationships. The two stories have some remarkable similarities. Both stories involve Abraham’s relationship with a son: Ishmael in tomorrow’s story and Isaac on Tuesday morning. Both stories are difficult and let us know that building relationships is no simple matter. The second story, the Binding of Isaac, may be familiar to more to us. Abraham’s relationship with his son, his wife and his God are all on the line. We see here that getting pulled in many directions is nothing new.

In the story we read tomorrow we learn that Abraham is forced to sever his relationship with Hagar and to banish his first born son Ishmael, as painful as that was for him. What is truly fascinating is that in the Midrash, the legendary stories that supplement what we read in the Torah, Abraham just could not let it go. Ishmael moved to the Arabian Peninsula, near the city of Mecca, and married. Abraham so desperately missed his son that on several occasions he made the journey there – 750 miles – quite a trip in that time – to see Ishmael. For many of us maintaining relationships still requires considerable travel.

But we know that not all relationships can be maintained or should be repaired. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote about a woman who came to see him filled with anger at the man to whom she had been married, but the divorce was now ten years in the past. The marriage was over, but her anger was unabated. Her hatred for this man was with her 24 hours a day, never giving her a moment of peace. Rabbi Kushner is a wise counselor. He compared her angry feelings toward her former spouse to a hot coal that she was holding in her hand. As long as she held on to the coal it caused her tremendous pain. Clearly, she had to find a way to drop that coal and move on with her life.

The essential message of this holiday season is Teshuva, return.

There are relationships that we once had in our lives that should be returned to wholeness. Those fractures need to be healed. In many cases, the cause for rift may now be a part of ancient history and can be set aside. Now is the time for turning. Turn to those loved ones and say “Enough.” The time has come to make amends.

In other cases, we need a return to peace of mind, to work on our own wholeness. There are relationships that were not meant to be and must be put fully behind us. When the Jews left Egypt over 3,000 years ago, they could not seem to fully separate themselves from the culture. You could take the Jews out of Egypt but you could not take the Egypt out of the Jews. Until a generation arose that had not known slavery, the people could not enter the Promised Land. In this season of Teshuva, of return, look into your life, examine your relationships, and consider which ones truly, if sadly, need to be over and done with. Now is the time for healing yourself, to return to the wholeness you deserve.

Finally, there are relationships that are not severed, but are just not as strong as they could or should be. Those relationships need to return to wholeness. What are the relationships in your life that ought to be nurtured? Are their family members from whom you have just drifted apart? Pick up the phone and give them a call. You have the perfect excuse: “I just wanted to say Shana Tova, have good year.” That might spark a wonderful catch-up conversation and reignite a relationship that was stronger when you were all younger.

May this year of 5773 bring love and joy to you and your dear ones, and may it be a year of healing and wholeness for us all.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782