“And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables which you did break, and you shall put them in the Ark.”
I have always been fascinated by the story of Moses, who ascended Mt. Sinai at the request of God to receive the Ten Commandments. This was the greatest gift that Moses could bring to his people who were waiting at the bottom of that mountain. We all know what happened next. Moses climbed down the mountain with the tablets only to find his people worshipping a golden calf. He was so angry that he smashed the tablets in half.
What is remarkable is that the story did not end there. Moses went back up the mountain and God gave him a new set to replace what he had broken. The broken pieces were placed in the Holy Ark along with the intact tablets. The story is one of forgiveness, second chances and the vulnerability of the great prophet. Moses erupted into great anger when he felt betrayed by his people. And yet, he mustered all the strength he had and climbed back up the mountain and received a second set of tablets.
The broken tablets, which represent our imperfect humanity, were placed in the Ark along with the intact ones. We are told in today’s Daf Yomi that the Ark was hidden when our ancestors left Jerusalem for Babylonia, out of fear that it might never be returned. The oldest known set of tablets that were copies of the original Ten Commandments were recently excavated, but there has been no evidence of the original tablets or Ark. What continues to resonate with me are those broken tablets, which were carefully lifted to take their place in the Ark.
The Rabbis discuss the dimensions of the Ark. There is a lot of discussion of the exact dimension of a handbreadth, which harkens back to the darkest days of reading Tractate Eruvin. We are told that the two intact and two broken tablets were placed in the Ark. This is supported by a passage in Deuteronomy (10:2): “And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables which you did break, and you shall put them in the Ark.”
The traditional view as proposed by Rabbi Hanina ben Gamliel was that the ten commandments were split between the two tablets – with five on one and five on another, as suggested by this quote from Deuteronomy (4:13): “And He wrote them upon two tablets of stone.” But a chorus of unnamed Rabbis suggest that in fact all Ten Commandments were written on each of the two stones, quoting the following from the same Deuteronomy passage: “And He declared unto you His covenant, which He commanded you to perform, even the ten words.” It is clear at this point that the Rabbis can find support for any of the competing suppositions in the Torah from the passages in Deuteronomy.
But we are not yet done. Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai said that there were twenty commandments on each tablet, while Rabbi Simai said there were forty on each, because the words were written on each side and for those that are good are math, they were cubed. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish went even further and said that as there are smaller waves in the sea among the larger ones, the letters of the Torah are written “between each and every commandment.”
Imagine the letters of the Torah being written between each and every commandment. The dense compact letters represent the depth of knowledge and human understanding that were demonstrated by Moses when he was able to rise above his anger and climb back up Mt. Sinai to collect the second set of tablets. Perhaps the Rabbis were unable to reach a consensus on the size of the Ark, because it is as infinite as the sea of knowledge that contains all the large and small waves.
And then there is this from Rabbi Pinehas who said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: “The Torah that the Holy One, Blessed be He, gave to Moses on Mount Sinai was given to him as white fire engraved with black fire. It is fire mixed with fire, carved from fire, given from fire, as it is written: At God’s right hand was a fiery law unto them.” (Deuteronomy 33:2)
What can be more mysterious and representative of the knowledge and compassion that resides within each of us, than fire mixed with fire?