And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face; in all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land; and in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moses wrought in the eyes of all Israel.” (Deut. 34:10-12).

So ends the Torah.

But is it not strange that the Torah, a book about man and his relationship with God, ends with the personal praises of Moses? The Midrash, in an attempt to probe the meaning of the Torah’s conclusion, explores which mighty things “Moses wrought in the eyes of all Israel.” Among the possibilities raised – the Exodus, the Giving of the Torah, the breaking of the Tablets of the Law – Rashi adopts the latter as the plain meaning of the text:

“[...] in the eyes of all Israel” [refers to the fact that] his heart inspired him to break the Tablets before their eyes, as it is said, “And I took hold of the two tablets, and cast them out of my two hands, and broke them before your eyes” (9:17), and God agreed with him saying “yeyasher kochacha” [well done]!

Why, of all the great acts that Moses performed, does the act of breaking the tablets rank as his defining moment? Let us start at the beginning of the parsha, when Moses refers to the giving of the law, saying, “The Lord came from Sinai … at His right hand was a fiery law unto them” (33:2). Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains here that “God went forth towards them … as a bridegroom goes forth to welcome his bride.” The occasion of the giving of the Torah, then, was a wedding day between God and His people wherein the Torah, in the form of the Tablets[1], was to serve as the wedding contract. And so, following the mass revelation of the “fiery law” on Sinai, Moses went up the mountain to receive the wedding contract.

After 40 days and 40 nights, God informs Moses that the people had corrupted themselves in the worship of the Golden Calf. Moses descends the mountain and, upon witnessing the people’s betrayal of God, breaks the Tablets. The Midrash (Exodus Rabba 46:1) explains that it was in an effort to save the relationship between bride and bridegroom that Moses destroyed the wedding contract, for, without a contract, the people were not formally beholden to its contents and could thus seek a rapprochement. The act of breaking the Tablets was momentous, for it saved the people from divine wrath.

But there was something far more profound in the breaking of the Tablets that made it the greatest act “which Moses wrought in the eyes of all Israel.” To understand, we turn to a shocking statement in the Talmud (Pesachim 49b):

Rabbi Hiyya taught: Whoever learns the Torah in front of an ignorant individual (am ha’aretz)[2] is as though he cohabited with the individual’s betrothed in his presence, for it is said, “Moses commanded us the Torah, an inheritance [morashah] of the congregation of Jacob” – read not morashah but me’orasah [betrothed].

On the simplest level, Rabbi Hiyya has switched the bride and bridegroom metaphor from being about man and God to being about Torah and man. Accordingly, the Torah is not just the wedding contract between God and His people but the very object of their betrothal. Rabbi Hiyya, however, has not really switched the metaphor but merely changed the focus; for the Torah, referred to as “names of God,” is really a reflection of the divine essence itself. As such, it is by developing a relationship with the Torah that one develops a relationship with God.

Rabbi Hiyya’s teaching, however, is much deeper than this, for he intimates that each individual has his own personal relationship with the Torah and, by extension, with God. When one learns Torah, he reveals a facet of God’s essence and so engages the divine in the most intimate way. A third party to such learning is in a sense participating in the development of the scholar’s relationship with God. If an individual appreciates Torah, then the divine facet revealed by the scholar will serve to strengthen his own relationship with God, albeit to a lesser degree than the scholar who learned it himself. On the other hand, an uninterested individual (am ha’aretz) will remain unmoved and will have thus lost the opportunity to develop his relationship with God. In this case, the scholar developed a relationship with the Torah that the individual himself was to develop, and thus, in the metaphor of bride and bridegroom, the scholar violated the individual’s betrothed.

Rembrandt, 'Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, 1659

Rembrandt, ‘Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, 1659

And herein lies the greatness of breaking of the tablets. The people, in the midst of idol worship, were utterly uninterested in the Torah and would have thus lost the opportunity to develop their relationship with God. But how, then, does one engage an individual, or a people, who have no interest in holiness? The answer is relationship. The incident of the Golden Calf taught the following critical lesson: to develop a relationship with God, one must be an involved participant. It is not enough for God to simply give the Torah; the people must be active recipients.

The first tablets, hewn and written by God himself, represented a divine gift to man, so holy as to be beyond him. In contrast, after the dust settled from the Golden Calf incident, God tells Moses: “Hew for yourself two tables of stone like unto the first…” (Ex. 34:1). Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin explains that while the second tablets were not as “holy” as the first, they were far more important because they represented man’s involvement in the relationship with the divine:

“God commanded that the second tablets be hewn by Moses, not because the people didn’t deserve to have wholly divine tablets, but to teach that the laws in these tablets are innovated through the power of man’s effort with the help of heaven – siata di’shmaya” (Haamek Davar, Ex. 34:1).

The second Tablets symbolize relationship. God seeks man through an ephemeral “bat kol,” a heavenly voice that calls out for man to seek Him in His word – the Torah. Man seeks God by learning Torah, by applying his creative genius to reveal new facets of the divine essence hidden in the folds of the divine word. In return, God smiles on man’s efforts – siata di’shmaya – by revealing to him wonders he could have never dreamed of. In the words of the Psalmist, “The secret of the Lord is revealed to those that fear Him, it is His covenant to inform them” (Psalms 25:14).

The breaking of the tablets demonstrated that holiness cannot be bequeathed but rather must be achieved. In breaking the tablets, Moses – having just learned Torah for 40 days and 40 nights – applied his own creative understanding to reveal the divine will, which God affirmed, “yeyasher kochacha” [well done]! This was Moses’s defining moment. To attain this moment – this intimate relationship between man and God, bride and bridegroom – is the whole purpose of the Torah.

So ends the Torah.

We, however, having yet to reach the level of Moses, find ourselves not at the end but only “In the beginning…”

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[1] See Haamek Davar (Deut. 34) who explains that the tablets contained the whole Torah in code form.

[2] In Rabbinic literature this refers not to a person who simply doesn’t know Torah, but one who is ignorant by design, with no inkling to learn Torah.

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