Clay Jars
March 27th, 2008 by Sonja

clay jarsOne of my favorite blogs to read and meditate on is Velveteen Rabbi by Rachel Barenblatt. Rachel is a rabbinical student who lives and blogs in western Massachusetts. This is coincidentally near where my brother lives and near where I spent a lot of time as a child, so I feel a tie to her for this reason. But I would love her writing no matter where she did it. It is is full of imagery that makes the divine more approachable, more meaningful, and more real.

She often, as a rabbinical student, writes some form of commentary on the weekly parshat (portion). I hesitate to use words here because those words will define something that I am not qualified to define. But here is my very limited understanding of the Jewish tradition surrounding their scriptures. It is very usual to read through the scriptures (Torah … a portion of our Old Testament) every year. You begin and end during Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah (which holiday falls at the end of the high holidays in the autumn). The scriptures are broken into portions (parshats) that are defined and one could find those in a variety of places. So that on any given week, those Jews who are doing so are all reading the same portions of scripture together. There is something comforting in that to me.

This week (as she has in weeks past) she wrote a poem, but led off with this bit from Leviticus:

And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be unclean and [the vessel] itself you shall break. –Leviticus 11:33

I stopped right there. And could not go on. I did not (at that moment) read the poem. “Paul said something about earthen vessels. I know he did. Now where was it? And what was it, exactly?” All I could remember at that moment was it was a good thing and I needed to know the exact quote and I needed to read it in context. So I found it in 2 Corinthians 4

7But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 12So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Then I went back to Leviticus, searching for earthen vessels and what their specific outcome was to be. I read bits of Leviticus for the first time and was legitimately fascinated. Paul, the phormer Pharisee, would have known this. Clay or earthen vessels could be used for sacrifice, but once used, they must be broken. Bronze vessels could be scoured and cleansed, but clay vessels must be broken. I was particularly struck by this in Leviticus 6

24 The LORD said to Moses, 25 “Say to Aaron and his sons: ‘These are the regulations for the sin offering: The sin offering is to be slaughtered before the LORD in the place the burnt offering is slaughtered; it is most holy. 26 The priest who offers it shall eat it; it is to be eaten in a holy place, in the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting. 27 Whatever touches any of the flesh will become holy, and if any of the blood is spattered on a garment, you must wash it in a holy place. 28 The clay pot the meat is cooked in must be broken; but if it is cooked in a bronze pot, the pot is to be scoured and rinsed with water. (italics are mine)

After all of this, I went back and read Rachel’s beautiful poem and was immediately struck by this verse:

The heart is an earthen vessel,
the body an urn: made from dust

and patched with slip,
divine fingerprints everywhere.

Read her whole poem, then her explanation of Talmudic tradition concerning clay pots. How they are broken and then glued together again. The Hasidic tradition which teaches that the earthen vessel is also a metaphor for our hearts. And I go back again to Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth … “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” We will be (or maybe we are already) broken, and then glued back together … “patched with slip, divine fingerprints everywhere.” Rendered useless and then useful again. In the process of becoming holy, we must also become broken and put back together. We must leave our cracks on the outside … an aesthetically imperfect vessel, which God can now use.

9 Responses  
  • writes:
    March 27th, 20088:36 amat

    wow- what a great post; food for my soul, thank you

  • Rachel writes:
    March 27th, 20089:05 amat

    Thank you so much for these kind words about the poem — and also for offering these words from Paul and your interpretations of how his teaching connects with this material. (I’m realizing, suddenly, that the Christian rock band Jars of Clay must have been named after this verse from Paul — and, in turn, that the name is an echo of the clay vessels described in the Hebrew scriptures too.) I’m so glad this poem resonates for you, across the gap that separates our two traditions.

  • Peggy writes:
    March 27th, 200811:12 amat

    Sonja, if you could have found Purple pottery that had been broken and repaired, it would be the perfect symbol of Abi’s Purple Martyrdom. 8)

    It is only as we see that we are already broken and that, in the New Covenant, it is Christ’s blood that is the “slip” which God uses to both patches us back together and implant his very DNA in us — by which the Holy Spirit is able to transform us into brothers and sisters of Christ … joint heirs of God’s Kingdom.

    Great thoughts … more rumination needed 😉

  • Sonja writes:
    March 27th, 200811:24 amat

    @Sally – you’re welcome, and it makes my heart glad to have hosted you here.

    @Rachel – thank you for the lovely poem and your generosity in sharing with us. It is one of my great delights to find bridges between our faiths. To find the roots of our inheritance from your faith that is in ours. They are all there, glistening jewels just waiting for us … and your writing often makes it very easy for me.

    @Peggy – lol … I tried sister-friend, I tried. But aqua was the closest to purple I could find. And after 10 pages of images, there were no broken images of pottery at all … apparently no one likes to put images of broken pots on the web 😀 . So we shall have to put on our purple cHesed glasses and imagine the cracks ourselves.

  • Sonja writes:
    March 27th, 200812:47 pmat

    Well … Peggy, I did some more digging and found a picture I could change to purple for you! 😀 So … now we have a purple cracked clay pot, with a peacock no less. And “Peacock was an early Christian symbol of resurrection and immortality …”

  • Peggy writes:
    March 27th, 20083:40 pmat

    You rock, girl! I notice that this particular pot, even repaired, still will not hold water…LOL! You do have to remember to choose the proper cracked/repaired pot for the proper purpose. Fortunately, Papa knows all about choosing wisely. :)

    I love peacocks … I have an outfit from college with a beautiful peacock on it. Used to have matching earrings — one of the kids took care of that. 8)

  • Peggy writes:
    March 27th, 20083:43 pmat

    …and by the way — our purple cHesed glasses will actually reveal cracks in pots… 😉 Hehehe….

  • kievasfargo writes:
    March 27th, 20089:34 pmat

    Great post…made me think of the song “Trading My Sorrows”.

  • Amy writes:
    March 28th, 200811:01 pmat

    Beautiful, thoughtful post.

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