Haval al de-avdin ve-la mishtakhin, “Alas for those who have gone and are no longer to be found,” a lament the Talmud instructs us to say when a great person dies with nobody to replace them – a lament I recited upon hearing of the death of Rabbi Harold Kushner at the age of 88 this past spring.
To his beloved Temple Israel community in Natick, Massachusetts over the course of his decades-long career, Rabbi Kushner was a wise and compassion-filled pastor and communal leader. A rabbi’s rabbi, a mentor to those who knew him well, and to those like me who only knew him from afar, a generational role model.
To the wider world, Rabbi Kushner was the author of over a dozen books, most famously When Bad Things Happen to Good People, a multimillion-copy bestseller, translated into countless languages, and the book most frequently distributed by clergy, myself included, to those seeking guidance after experiencing personal tragedy. Kushner wrote the book as a young rabbi following the death of his son Aaron from the degenerative premature aging disease progeria.
In tribute to Kushner, over the course of the holidays my colleagues and I will refer to Kushner’s writing, exploring his response to the problem of evil, his counsel on overcoming fear, and his insightful and original readings of key texts of our tradition.
For the moment, I want to focus neither on Kushner’s career nor on any of his books but on what he said to his Natick congregation on the High Holidays following the death of his son. One can only imagine what it must have felt like for him to speak that day in 1978. One can only imagine what it must have felt like sitting in the pews waiting to hear the rabbi speak of his personal loss. But the text Kushner drew from that day was neither the book of Job nor Augustine nor any other philosophical meditation on theodicy, the problem of evil. That day he began, as only Kushner could, with a story, a story that he described as “a children’s story for grownups, “The Missing Piece” by Shel Silverstein:
“Once upon a time, there was a circle that was missing a piece and it was very unhappy. It went all over the world looking for its missing piece—over hills and across rivers, up mountains and down into valleys, through rain and snow and blistering sun, it went looking for its missing piece. And wherever it went, because it was missing a piece, it had to go very slowly. So as it went along, it stopped to look at the flowers and talk to the butterflies. It stopped to rest in the cool grass. Sometimes it passed a snail, and sometimes the snail passed it. And wherever it went, it kept looking for its missing piece.
“But it couldn’t find it. Some pieces were too big and some were too small; some were too square and some were too pointy. None of them fit. Then suddenly one day, it found a piece that seemed to fit perfectly. The circle was whole again; nothing was missing. It took the piece into itself and started to roll away. And now, because it was a whole unbroken circle, it could roll much faster. And so it rolled quickly throughout the world, past the lakes and past the forests, too fast to get a good look at them. It rolled too quickly to notice the flowers, too fast for any of the insects to fly by and talk to it. And when the circle realized that it was rolling too fast to do any of the things it had been doing for years, it stopped. It very reluctantly put down its missing piece, and it rolled slowly away, heading out into the world, looking for its missing piece.”
It is a beautiful story in a beautiful sermon. Kushner never actually mentioned his son, the Silverstein story being his way to speak about what was present but that he couldn’t, or wasn’t yet ready, to talk about. On that day, Kushner sought neither to explain why bad things happen to good people, nor what to do when bad things inevitably do happen to good people. Kushner’s observation was simply that bad things do happen to good people – all the time. It could be the loss of a loved one, but it could also be a broken heart, a failed or failing relationship. It could be a financial setback, substance abuse, the loss of mobility, or the challenges associated with fertility and starting a family. Everyone has a missing piece; it is part and parcel of the human condition.
But then Kushner went on to make a second point, a point to which we shall, soon enough, turn our attention. Not just that we all have a missing piece, but that it is in missing that piece that we somehow become whole. In Kushner’s words, “we’re more complete if we’re incomplete.” To roll through this world without defect, as the circle of Silverstein’s story did for a time, is to miss all that life has to offer. For Kushner, the goal in life is not to be perfect, but by acknowledging our missing pieces, to be perfectly human – a thought as paradoxical as it is provocative.
Today is Rosh Hashanah, the day upon which the first human being was created, the day tradition teaches is filled with possibility and new beginnings. There is sanctity to these days of awe. We dress in our finest; the music – beautiful; the synagogue – tip-top; our tradition – transcendent. For you, your loved ones, the Jewish people, and all of humanity – I pray that this year be a year of sweetness, health, and peace.
Notwithstanding our high hopes and aspirations, we do the holidays and ourselves a disservice if we believe our goal is to enter some sort of fairytale or Edenic paradise. In fact, the calendrical calculus of the day is just the opposite: not to enter Eden but to leave Eden. According to the rabbinic timeline, today was not the day the world was created. That happened on the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Elul, six days ago. Today, Rosh Hashanah, is the anniversary of the sixth day of creation, not only the day that Adam and Eve were created, but also the day they ate of the fruit of the Garden and, by day’s end, had exited the Garden. Today is the day we stand East of Eden, the scar tissue at our rib still raw, something missing inside, vulnerable and mortal, the drama of the human story just beginning.
It is not, I readily admit, how we normally brand the High Holidays. “Come to synagogue and be reminded of your missing piece.” But like those optical illusions containing an embedded image, it is a pattern that becomes impossible to unsee once you’ve seen it. The High Holiday mahzor reminds us that we are broken shards. Our world is good, tov, but far from mushlam or tam, whole or perfect. The primary symbol of the day, the shofar – its wailing sound echoes the bitter cry of a broken soul. That is what shevarim actually means: “broken pieces.”
Consider the Torah readings associated with this day. The first family of our people is anything but perfect. Sarah’s infertility, Sarah measuring her own condition against Hagar’s and the jealousy that ensued. The pitfalls of blended families and the sibling rivalry between Isaac and Ishmael. Abraham binding his son Isaac on the altar, a warrior of faith perhaps, but not exactly an exemplar of good parenting. There is drama, there is trauma, there is family dysfunction, and every narrative shares the unsettling feature of being left unresolved; none tie up neatly in a bow. Why read these stories and not tales of beauty, love, heroism, and reconciliation? You might have your answer, but mine is that they are intended to be literary prisms enabling the missing pieces of our own lives to come into focus. If our founding matriarchs and patriarchs experienced loss, jealousy, frailty, and alienation, why should we believe we are any different? What is the point of these holidays? As the cantor’s prayer before musaf reminds us, “Hineni, here I am, deficient in deeds, trembling before God in my humanity.” Today we are reminded that you, me, all of us are anything but perfect.
Important as the observation may be that we are all missing a piece, on a certain level it is self-evident, an insight of no great revelation. We all know we have defects, and if we don’t know, some of us lucky ones have spouses to point them out to us. Missing pieces I get. But the thing that weighs on me today, that I want to explore with you, is Kushner’s contention that by our missing pieces we are made whole. Kushner’s words are not complicated: “We’re more complete if we’re incomplete.” I have heard more than one rabbi quote the Kotzker Rebbe, who taught, “There is nothing more whole that a broken heart.” I know the Leonard Cohen lyric about how “there is a crack in everything . . . that’s how the light gets in.” I understand the words; I just don’t get them. When people suffer loss, they feel less complete, not more. When people are missing a piece, they feel less whole, not more. At best it is a clichéd tautology; at worst it is a thought that is dismissive of a person’s pain. Kushner was as wise and compassionate as they come, and he knew loss firsthand. What did he mean when he said, “we’re more complete if we’re incomplete”?
One answer might be that Kushner understood that our world suffers from what some refer to as the tyranny of perfection, the toxic notion – to quote the prophet of the summer, Barbie – that “It is the best day ever. So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow, and every day from now until forever.” A tyranny of perfection that discourages the people we love from being forthcoming in their humanity.
You want to know what is the most charged moment of my rabbinate? It has nothing to do with High Holiday seats, intermarriage, or bnei mitzvah dates. It is the moment that happens at least once a year, when an Early Childhood Center parent barges into my office, bypassing every other layer of management, demanding the head of my early childhood director on a platter because a teacher had the nerve to suggest that their child has differentiated needs, needs extra help, or maybe, just maybe, can’t be served by our school. The pastoral dynamic is textbook: a young parent’s myth of their child’s perfection has been shattered, and someone is going to pay. As the parent of college-age children, were someone to tell me that one of my kids is perfect, I would tell them they have the wrong kid! But that myth of our children’s perfection, it’s so hard to let go of. Whether it is in their academics, their athletics, their body image, their relationships, or their professional ambitions, by our disapproval and disappointment we inflict a suffocating expectation of perfection, no doubt reflecting our own insecurities, on the very people in this world who should know that they can always turn to us, in all their missing pieces, for unconditional acceptance. Our digital world does not lack for tools to make people feel less-than. The parties we are not invited to, the vacations we are not on, the clothes we don’t fit into, the colleges we are not accepted to, the shanda of a shaming culture wrought by the instant, public, and permanent record of social media. There is something so unforgiving about the society in which we and our children live. It takes an untold toll in our inability to be our authentic selves.
Maybe that is what Kushner meant when he said, “We’re more complete if we’re incomplete.” We need to make space for the imperfections of others. A countercultural message in a world that would deny people the space to be fully human and thus whole.
A second possibility, connected to the first, is that perhaps Kushner was not talking about other people, but about each one of us - that we need to name our missing pieces if we are to become whole. Perhaps Kushner thought that were we to do so, our relationships with one another would be strengthened.
This past summer, a low-level controversy erupted in the Cosgrove family. My parents, who I am delighted are here from L.A., are recently retired, and my brothers and I began to explore creating a family history, a chance to get the Cosgrove story on record. One of my brothers thought to throw some shekels to an out-of-work Hollywood writer, of which there are plenty, to draft their story. Another brother suggested that we hire an out-of-work videographer, of which there are many, for an oral history. I am entirely agnostic on the medium; my concern lies elsewhere. Who will conduct the interview? A professional, a child, a grandchild? After all, I know, because I know, that there are all sorts of stories that need to be on the record. Nothing “Page Six” worthy, just the usual stuff: some losses along the way, a few relatives nobody talks about, and the romances that preceded my parents’ meeting each other. I am reminded of Goldstein who asked his beloved Sadie if he was the only one she had ever been with. To which Sadie responded, “Yes Abe – all the others were nines and tens.” I want to make sure the good stuff is documented, the stuff without which my parents would not be my parents and my family not my family. But when I asked my folks about it, their response – and you know where this is going – was, “Absolutely not, Elliot. Those stories are never to be told. Leave well enough alone. Let sleeping dogs lie.”
In Hollywood terms, the Cosgrove family project remains stuck in development. And before I get disowned, I do acknowledge that there is a statute of limitations on certain things. Not every story needs to be or should be told, and yes, in some instances, repression and denial have their place. When it comes to memory, we need not be masochists. But I also think that there is self-knowledge, healing, growth, and even wholeness to be had in speaking our losses. The job we didn’t get, the relationship that didn’t take, the hurt we endured – all those times we had to reset. In sharing those stories, we become more human, not less.
Sharing that which we are missing doesn’t make us miss it any less, but at least, as taught by the wisdom of a shiva house, we take comfort in knowing we are not alone. When we admit to our loved ones that we too have experienced a life of oscillating ups and downs, joys and sorrows, successes and setbacks, we teach them that when they experience frailty and failure – which they will – not only are they not the first to do so, and not only can they still turn to us and be loved, but they too can bounce back. Maybe that is what Kushner meant. It is by way of our missing pieces that we should connect to one another and thus become whole.
A third and final possibility is that maybe Kushner believed that in loss we are granted wisdom. A silver lining, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” theory of loss, in that loss teaches us to appreciate life. Kushner was fond of quoting, by way of his teacher Rabbi Mordecai Waxman of blessed memory, the Greek tale of the waters of Lethe. The legend tells that when a person dies, he or she comes to the river that is the boundary between the land of the living and the land of the no-longer-living. The boatman whose task it is to ferry souls across the river would tell new arrivals that they were entitled to drink of the waters of Lethe, the waters of forgetfulness, before they crossed over. If they drank, they would forget everything that had happened to them on earth. They would forget the painful moments but also the pleasant ones. They would forget the pain of illness and loss, but also the joys of health and love. It would be as if they had never tasted life. If they chose not to drink, they would be left with those memories for eternity. According to the tale, almost no one, no matter how bitter their days had been, chose to drink the waters of Lethe. Put another way, we cannot have the honey without the sting, love without loss. It is the missing pieces that make us who we are.
There are, no doubt, other answers, other ways to understand Kushner, but truth be told, none of them really satisfy me. The Talmud (Brachot 5b) relates that when the great sage Rabbi Hiyya fell ill, his colleague Rabbi Yochanan asked Rabbi Hiyya if his sufferings were dear to him, meaning was he grateful for any wisdom that came by way of his suffering. Rabbi Hiyya responded, lo hen v’lo secharan, neither the sufferings nor their reward. I understand Hiyya’s rejection of the “lemonade from lemons” theory of pain. Don’t leave me to the brokenhearted. I want neither the honey nor the sting. God bless the Kotzker rebbe, but a broken heart does not make me whole.
It was time to use my lifeline and I decided to go directly to the source, or as close to the source as I could. Rabbi Kushner lost his son decades ago, but his daughter Ariel is alive and well in Massachusetts. She is an accomplished ceramic artist, who spends her days shaping clay on a potter’s wheel. I reached out to Ariel hoping to understand the inner life and ongoing legacy of her late father, to see if she had any insight as to what he meant when he said that “we’re more complete when we’re incomplete.” What was I missing? Perhaps Kushner’s daughter could shed light on Rabbi Kushner.
Ariel could not have been more gracious in receiving my call. I think she appreciated the opportunity to speak of her father as she anticipated her first High Holidays without him. Her mother Suzette passed a year earlier. Now, still living ten minutes from her father’s synagogue, Ariel was girding herself to enter her father’s sanctuary on the first High Holidays without either parent living. We spoke for some time. Ariel shared with me the way her father prepared for the High Holidays by writing sermons, the humanity he brought to pastoral care, and the gratification he took in the knowledge that his books helped so many through difficult chapters of their lives. She explained that despite his being an accomplished preacher and public persona, at his core, her father was a quiet person with a rich inner life.
I explained to her that I was seeking to understand that first High Holiday sermon after her brother’s death and her father’s decision to read Silverstein’s “Missing Piece.” There was a long pause on the phone. Perhaps, I feared, my question was too intrusive. Ariel regrouped and explained to me that familiar as she was with her father’s sermons and books, truth be told, she had never put two and two together, never registered that it was that sermon he gave following her brother’s death. What she did know was that as her father declined, traversing the journey from nursing to hospice care to the world to come, his ability to communicate waned, and so Ariel decided, as many do, to read to him. The time for complex prose and philosophy had passed long since, so she turned to the bookshelf, and there in her father’s library her eye caught a children’s book, The Missing Piece. She pulled it off the shelf and as she read it to him, he stirred, and he began to engage, and they began, even as her father grew less lucid, to read the book together. Had she pulled the book from the shelf because she knew, without knowing, that it gestured the presence of her brother, her father’s son? Did she read it as a nod to her mother’s recent death or perhaps her father’s imminent passing, an unspoken acknowledgement of the next missing piece that awaited her? Ariel knew not the answer. She just held the image close – father and daughter, daughter and father – all their missing pieces present in the room.
It was, to say the least, a very moving, almost mystical, exchange. But my question had yet to be answered. How are we – by way of our missing pieces – supposed to be made whole? What did her father mean when he said, “We’re more complete if we’re incomplete”?
Once again Ariel paused, and, with a pastoral touch undoubtedly passed on to her from her father, responded to me with warmth of word and spirit. She explained that she is neither a rabbi nor a philosopher, nor for that matter does she believe it her place to speak for her father’s theological legacy. She is a ceramicist, her days spent shaping clay, and it would be in those terms that she would respond to my question. When one works at a potter’s wheel, she explained, one can trim, clip, shape, and refine the clay, working to make everything perfectly symmetrical and without blemish. But, she continued, there is another philosophy, of eastern origin, by which to approach her craft, wabi-sabi, that teaches otherwise. In this aesthetic, the artist endeavors to accept that which is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete in this world. With this approach, one still sits at the potter’s wheel with focused attention and intention but makes space for imperfection and asymmetry. One coils clay with human hands but sees in each fingerprint not imperfection, but artistry. One presses and molds and strikes the clay knowing that one’s fingers necessarily leave a mark; but that it is in those marks that form and beauty and wholeness are found.
Given the choice of being complete or incomplete, I would choose complete. I desire neither the suffering nor the reward associated with loss. But given that the choice is not ours to make, given that frailty and loss and missing pieces are part and parcel of the human experience, we still have a choice. Will we choose to see the fingerprints, the marks, and the fingerprints of our Marcs as part of the enduring beauty of this world? Will they teach us that we are here on earth to live purposeful lives filled with gratitude, appreciation, friendship, community, and humility? Will they remind us that life, like pottery, is fragile – it can shatter without notice – so we must treat each other, ourselves, and this world with sensitivity and care? If the Heavenly Potter – God, Godself – can’t create a perfect world, then why in the world should we believe that either we or any of our creations are perfect? So, let’s spend this year and every year of our lives treating ourselves and our loved ones with a spirit of generosity, forgiveness, integrity, and understanding.
Can we be more complete when we’re incomplete? Maybe Rabbi Kushner had the answer. Me, I don’t know. I still struggle. The wailing cry of shevarim has yet to be replaced by the unbroken call of tekiah. I look forward to the day it is. I believe it will. We must all believe it will. And until that day comes, we have the choice. Me, I choose to leave fingerprints of love, life, and faith wherever I can – marks of beauty on every inch of this imperfect world.
Dedicated to the memory of Marc Becker (1972-2023). Beloved friend, warrior-mensch and past Chairman of Park Avenue Synagogue.
Kushner, Harold S. Echoes of Sinai: Favorite Sermons of Rabbi Harold Kushner. New York: Curtis Brown Unlimited, 2018.
_______________. Overcoming Life's Disappointments: Learning from Moses How to Cope with Frustration. New York: Knopf, 2006.
_______________. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.
Silverstein, Shel. The Missing Piece. New York: Harper & Row, 2006.