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John Locke, COVID-19, and the second tablets

The coronavirus has shattered my expectations around school, work, healthcare, and more; I am now looking for a new social contract, one with a foundation in compassion
Moses with the Tablets of the Law (oil on canvas) by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669).
Moses with the Tablets of the Law (oil on canvas) by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669).

My first thought was John Locke, and that the contract was broken. This isn’t how it was supposed to be. Locke, Rousseau… if government is a social contract, didn’t I hold up my side of it? What happened to the other side?

That thought punctured, swirled and reverberated as I grasped a crying infant in one hand while working, and tried to entertain (educate?) an upset and vulnerable 4-year-old and 7-year-old with the other, as their father provided healthcare and coronavirus testing to so many. There were contracts I had with society, I kept thinking.  They were impenetrable, I had thought. And now they are broken. If I had kids, there was supposed to be school. If I worked hard, there was supposed to be daycare. These were my assumptions. Sickness, death, healthcare and other essential workers in danger, not enough masks, or respirators, or time… What was going on?

As the days slowly turned into weeks, and we began to count towards Shavuot, the celebration of the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the image of my internal dialogue with John Locke slowly peeled away to reveal a new image. Through the incredulity and disbelief, I began to see a different vision, that of the second luchot, the second tablets — a second contract made when the first one did not hold. Could this become a second luchot moment? Could this be a chance to fix what was always broken?  To right the injustices that before were harder to see?

Rabbi Menachem Leibtag in his modern commentary, points out that there are vast differences in the way God presents His covenantal/contractual relationship with the Jewish people in the giving of the first set of tablets versus in the giving of the second.  In the first, God refers to Himself as “a jealous God” who will punish the third and fourth generations of those who sin, and will not forgive those who swear falsely by His name. He bestows kindness, but only to those who keep His laws (Exodus 20:2-6). It is a covenant that offers immediate reward for good deeds, but also immediate punishment, with no mention of a possibility for repentance from sin.

It is with this background that he offers a reinterpretation of one of the most striking scenes in Tanakh — Moses breaking the original tablets. Perhaps, when Moses saw the people sinning through worshiping the golden calf, Moses realized that according to the covenantal contract of the first tablets, if there was massive sin there was to be immediate massive punishment, with no possibility of repentance. Perhaps, through this realization, Moses, in an attempt to save the Jewish people from more destruction, threw the luchot down, in essence breaking the covenantal contract, so that its dire consequences would not come true.

After breaking the contract, Moses returns to God to ask forgiveness for the people, and he asks Him to show him His full glory. This glory includes not just the attribute of judgment, but also of mercy. God passes before Moses and proclaims His 13 attributes of mercy, each of which directly counters the harsher language God previously used to describe a relationship of inescapable retribution for sin. God no longer describes himself as a jealous God, but a merciful one. He no longer shows kindness only to those who keep His laws, but He is filled with abounding kindness for all (34:5-8). It is in the presence of these words that a new brit, a new covenant, through the second luchot are formed. In this way the traumatic breaking of the original tablets, propelled the creation of a new covenant/contract, one that was filled with an abundance of kindness, compassion, and mercy upon which the Jewish future was built.

We have all experienced the breaking of contracts over the past few months. For some it was broken expectations around school or work, for others around health, the economy, or care-giving. Some of us momentarily lost our grounding, others experienced a prolonged sense of lost hope and still others permanently lost loved ones. As our individual contracts shattered, many of us saw inequities and inequalities in society that stunned us, or reinforced what we always thought we could not see. For many of us, at some point during the last few months the very tablets that held our expectations of the society in which we lived, were broken.

As we look around now at the broken shards of stone at our own feet, and honor those things we tragically can never rebuild, can we also begin to imagine how we may forge a new social contract for society? Can we, as we take on this monumental task, seek to emulate God and rebuild with an abundance of kindness, compassion, and mercy? What will we choose to mark on our stones? What will we choose to hold onto from the past, and what new and more just attributes can we build into our new covenant with one another?  How can we make this a true second luchot moment?

About the Author
Jennifer Raskas is the Washington, DC, manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She speaks, writes and teaches classes widely on Hebrew literary approaches to readings in Tanakh. She is also a trained facilitator through Resetting the Table, which brings communities together for brave conversations across difference. Jennifer received her Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and her Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
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