Embracing a Broken Heart

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You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; 
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.  
My sacrifice,
 O God, is a broken spirit; 
    a broken and contrite heart you,  
    God, will not despise.
— Psalm 51:16-17

In honor of my father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, and his lifework helping Christians understand the Jewish roots of their faith, I offer you one of his devotional teachings from the beloved Psalms.

We all have thoughts and feelings about, well, our thoughts and feelings. But if we are critical of ourselves for thinking depressing thoughts or feeling sad, we might become even more distressed because we are thinking and feeling that way. We reprimand ourselves for not having enough gratitude. We feel unworthy for not having enough faith. We feel worse and worse as we critique our negative thoughts and emotions. If this train of thought continues, we will continue to spiral downward—unless something breaks us out of the pattern. 

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, a great 18th-century rabbi, once said, “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.” Understanding the rabbi’s words is the key to breaking out of this negative thought pattern.

Embracing a Broken Heart

You see, the rabbi understood the value of a broken spirit. He knew that a contrite and broken heart presents a wonderful opportunity. When we are down we can approach God in true humility, and there is no more powerful way to approach God. 

When King David penned Psalm 51, he was heartbroken. David wrote this psalm right after being confronted by the prophet Nathan for his sin in sleeping with Bathsheba, a woman whose husband was away at war. Nathan let David know in no uncertain terms that he had sinned and would incur the consequences.  

David was heartbroken—not just because he would have to endure physical punishment, but because of the damage that he had done to his soul and to his relationship with God. In this psalm, David had reached the lowest point in his life. And then he did something remarkable—he used rock bottom as a springboard to propel himself upward. 

“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise,he wrote. David understood the value of a broken spirit and heart. He continued, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.In this psalm, David declared that a broken spirit was even greater than an offering brought to the Holy Temple. 

To fully appreciate what David was saying, we have to understand the value of the sacrifice in Jewish worship. It cleansed people of sin, brought joy to their hearts, and inspired their souls. David was saying that a broken spirit was an even greater way to achieve that. A broken spirit can evoke forgiveness and restore our relationship with God. A broken heart, when given over to the Lord, can bring us even closer to Him than we were before. 

The message for us is to never despair over feelings of sadness or brokenness. Rather, we should embrace those feelings, and like David, use them to raise us up even higher. Your turn: Discover the lessons of courage found in the biblical story of Esther, which is celebrated this month in the Jewish observance of Purim.

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