Years ago, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner published his theory of personal puzzle pieces. He posited that we each come into this world with our own jigsaw puzzle. But the set is incomplete, in two ways: it has both missing pieces and extra pieces. Each of us were born with extra pieces that belong to others, and missing pieces that somehow got bundled in someone else’s puzzle.
The thing is, we don’t, we can’t, fully know what these pieces are. We don’t know who really owns our extra pieces, nor even what those pieces are. And we do not always know what pieces we are missing, or who is in possession of them.
One of the grand adventures of life is found in the exchange, almost always accidental. Sometimes it happens in the most casual and fleeting of ways. I remember once I was in a small store on a country road in Vermont many summers ago. I had stopped for some snack and a drink. I cannot remember what business I had up there, where I was going or what my plans were, but I do remember that I was in one of those throes of young adulthood (I was about 20 at the time), wondering both about the grand mysteries of all life and worrying about the particular mysteries of my own. I would not say my spirit was in turmoil, but neither was it in repose.
I roamed the narrow aisles of this picturesque store, gathered my snack and drink, and went to check out. Remarkably, despite the remoteness of this place, there was a short line at the cash register. There were two people waiting, both with their backs to me. The person at the front of the line was moving with dispatch. I could not have stood in line more than 90 seconds. But in that time, as I moved into the space of the woman in front of me, I was washed over with a wave of peace. It was clearly emanating from this woman. She was short, no taller than I was, and much older. Her hair was gray, cropped in a not-unattractive but efficient manner, the way one cuts one’s hair not because one doesn’t like it but just so as not to be bothered by it. I am not sure I ever really saw her face. But I was overcome by the glow of peace that surrounded her.
It felt to me like an aura, of both a gentle resignation at life’s unfairness and hurts, and unblemished joy in the goodness and blessings that still abound. It was not an innocent, Pollyanna peace, but a deep, hard-earned, battered-edges peace.
Now of course, this whole thing could have been merely a projection, an imagining on my part, I suppose. But you still have to explain why then, why her and that feeling?
Either way, I figure that was a moment of puzzle piece exchange right there – the meaning and power of which I am still trying to figure out.
On the other hand, an exchange of pieces can knock you off your feet. When you meet your bashert (your “intended,” your beloved). Or it could be with a teacher, a coach, an author long gone of a book that touches you.
Much of life’s great joy and wisdom is passed along through these chance encounters.
As Yom Kippur looms, almost upon our door, my mind turns to the mystery of these puzzle pieces. And I began to ruminate on Rabbi Kushner’s powerful and suggestive metaphor, crafting a few “principles” to help us better understand how it works.
1) The exchange of pieces is unearned. Neither giver nor recipient merits this exchange, though both benefit from it. (The one discarding something they cannot use; the other receiving something they need.) These exchanges are not intentional or planful. They just happen. One cannot boast about it or take pride in it. One can only marvel at it.
2) The exchange of pieces is non-reciprocal. That is, most times, the flow is only in one direction, from giver to recipient. This uneven, one-sided aspect is neither good nor bad. It just is. Ideally, over the expanse of space and time, the marketplace of exchange evens things out and we all end up with just the right pieces to complete our puzzle. But any one-way transaction can be full and complete in and of itself. True, when lovers are involved, or teachers, or friends, the exchange is mutual, but that is only one form of exchange, not a necessary form.
3) The exchange of pieces is unconditional. There are no strings, on either side. The one who gives has no additional responsibilities; the recipient can make no claim on them, cannot hold them responsible for the impact of their piece, and cannot require them to even acknowledge their gift. Indeed, the giver may not even know the exchange happened. (I doubt the gray-haired woman knew her affect on me.) Likewise, the giver cannot expect or seek expressions of thanks, for they gained as much in giving up a bit of clutter to them, as the recipient gained in receiving it.
4) The awareness of this exchange can happen either immediately or much later. Sometimes the exchange can be felt in the moment, like a bolt or a salve or a wave of peace. Other times it happens in stealth, and it is only in retrospect that one can look back and say, Ah, that is when it began, that is when it must have happened. I imagine that in fact most exchanges are acknowledged only in delay. Which is why days like Yom Kippur are so valuable, for they clear away the rubble and distractions so that we can find new pieces hidden under our quotidian debris.
5) The exchange of pieces should awaken feelings of gratitude. Not, as we said above, that this gratitude should or even can ever be openly expressed or directed to the source of the piece. But when fully experienced, the exchange of puzzle pieces is a twice-received gift: the value of the piece itself and the gratitude for it. Perhaps this is the glory of the exchange: it loops back on itself, weaving a web of benefit and gratitude securely, enduringly around the recipient.
The introspection that engulfs us on Yom Kippur is lapping at the door, so it is not surprising that these thoughts should spill into my mind at this moment. And they take on an additional resonance and awareness for me when placed in the context of our ailing earth and the resultant impact on those less privileged than we.
Perhaps, then, we need to extend this lovely personal metaphor of puzzle pieces and craft a sixth principle of the exchange: exchanges can happen gobally, at a distance. Without even knowing the names of the recipients, when we conduct our lives in ways that protect the world, we offer pieces of health, sharing, prosperity to others all around the world.
Even more, Rabbi Kushner conjured up pieces that confer only goodness. In this sixth principle, we realize that we can also exchange pieces that are toxic, that some unearned exchanges can harm as well as help.
Bottom line, I imagine, for this Yom Kippur message, is that exchanges happen, both personally and globally, both for good and for ill. And to the best of our ability, in all our transactions, we should exchange pieces of healing and hope, and banish all pieces of pain and destruction.
Gemar Hatimah Tovah – may you inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.