Moses goes up the mountain. The people sin with Golden Calf. God gets angry, wants to destroy them, Moses intercedes, God agrees to a lesser covenant and allows Moses to carve out the second tablets and gives the people a second chance.
That’s the story, right?
Not quite. A closer reading of the text reveals a more complicated narrative. One where the second tablets are not a consolation prize for the people who could not live up to the ideals of the first tablets, but rather a greater covenant that brings more of God’s attributes – perhaps the most important ones – into relationship with Israel.
First we need to go back to the first tablets, and the covenantal context in which they are given. What aspects of God are part of the deal? The first set of commandments spell them out clearly: “for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments. ” (Exodus 20:4-5).
God tells the people he will send them with an angel who will show them the way – but it will not be a forgiving angel. They will need to be on their best behaviour: “Take heed of him, and hearken unto his voice; be not rebellious against him; for he will not pardon your transgression; for My name is in him.” (Exodus 24:21).
In the first covenant at Sinai, God brings only some of his attributes to the table. Israel will have a relationship with the zealous, jealous God, who is quick to anger, and unforgiving. It is a lofty relationship, but not a human one.
After the sin of the Golden Calf, the first covenant cannot stand. There is no room for a second chance – no allowance for repentance. Moses intercedes to save the people from destruction, but they are left with only God’s agreement to bring them to the land of Israel as a nation like all others: no chosen status, no divine presence in their midst, no divine mission of being a nation of priests and a light unto the nations. The people cannot survive with a divine presence in their midst, for they are human and will inevitably fail to live up to the covenant: “Ye are a stiffnecked people; if I go up into the midst of thee for one moment, I shall consume thee.” (Exodus 33:5)
Again, Moses intercedes. “If Thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence. For wherein now shall it be known that I have found grace in Thy sight, I and Thy people? is it not in that Thou goest with us, so that we are distinguished, I and Thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:16) Moses cashes in his own political capital, and convinces God to find a way to enter into a covenant with the people which can survive failure, where the ability to fall and get up again is woven into the fabric of our relationship with God.
And God agrees. The second tablets are delivered with the covenant of the thirteen attributes of mercy: “The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth;keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; ” (Exodus 34:6-7) which have become such a central part of our liturgy, especially on Yom Kippur.
The second tablets don’t just replace the first ones, they supercede them. The content of the covenant – the commandments – are the same, but the framework is completely different. We are now in relationship with a God who is merciful, who can accept our failings and give us second (and third and fourth) chances. Our relationship with the divine is now stronger, and flexible enough not to break when bent. God forms a covenant with us not despite our stiff-neckedness, but because of it.
Brene Brown is a social worker/researcher who makes a powerful argument that true relationships are based on vulnerability – on our willingness to show our whole selves, faults and all to others, and to accept each other and ourselves as worthy of relationship as we are, and not through a facade of perfection. This is also the message of Ki Tissa. The first tablets did not open us up to a true relationship with the divine because they required perfection, and we are never perfect. This is not a failing of the second covenant – it is what makes our relationship with God deep and true.
What is powerful about Brene Brown’s story, as she tells it in her now famous TED talk, is how she came to it. She lived through what she calls her “
breakdown/spiritual awakening” where all her assumptions about her need to be perfect were challenged by the research she did on people in wholehearted relationships. Her conclusions would not nearly be as powerful if she had come to them easily.
So too is the story of the two covenants at Sinai. We needed to live through (and relive in our study) the first covenant to understand the need for the second. If God had included his merciful attributes in the original tablets, we would not have understood what had been added. We are worthy of God’s love as we are, and the second tablets bring us into a covenant of true relationship with the divine.
(Many of the ideas for this post were taken from my teacher Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, who has published at http://www.tanach.org/shmot/kitisa/kitisas1.htm)