In our Parsha Moshe reviews some key events including the breaking of the first set of Luchot (tablets). Midrash Tanchuma wonders what life would have been like had Moshe not broken the Luchot. More accurately, what the world would have been like if the sin of the Golden Calf never happened. After all, Moshe only threw the Luchot down the mountain in reaction to what was happening below.
There are 3 opinions cited for what this parallel existence would have been like. The first opinion is that it might have been a world with uninterrupted Jewish sovereignty. The Jewish People would have had a continuous Jewish State from the time of Moshe until today. Another opinion is that the Jewish People would be immortal. That would make the current population of China, at 1.34 billion people look miniscule.The third opinion is that the Jewish People would live their lives without afflictions.
The Jews threw paradise away
We all know that the sin of the Golden Calf precluded these outcomes. However, the Midrash says something far more radical. In worshiping the Golden Calf the Jewish People made a deliberate, conscious decision to reject this exalted lifestyle.
אֲפִלּוּ מִשְׁתַּעְבֶּדֶת, עוֹשִׂין מַה שֶּׁאָנוּ מְבַקְּשִׁיןן
“Even if it meant a history full of exile, we would rather be able to do what we want.”
How did Moshe react to this outrage? With the utmost loyalty to the Jewish People. According to the Midrash he did something outrageous himself in order to send a message to God. He threw down the tablets to signal the fact that he is throwing his lot in with that of the Jewish People. If God wants to forgive Moshe for breaking the Luchot, He has to forgive the Jews. If God does not forgive the Jews then Moshe kindly asked to be erased from God’s book.
God accepted this arrangement but told Moshe that if he is throwing his lot in with that of the Jewish People then he must start doing some of the hard work restoring the relationship – like chiseling out a new set of the Ten Commandments.
100% Inspiration, 0% perspiration
The commentator on Midrash Tanchuma, “Kol Haremez” suggests a novel explanation as to why Moshe is suddenly tasked with the grueling physical labor of chiseling out new Luchot from stone. This act is meant to herald a new reality in terms of acquiring Torah knowledge. In the world of the first set of Luchot, Torah knowledge came without any intellectual toil. You heard it, you got it, and it was fully absorbed. No need to wrestle with complicated ideas. No feeling of elation and triumph when one succeeds in working out a challenging concept. In fact, not much challenge at all. Now that the Jews rejfected this reality, the Jewish People chose to fight the hard fights and wrestle with spiritual and intellectual ideas. Now Moshe has to get a taste of this new reality through the arduous task of chiseling stone.
Why did the Jews make this choice
I wish I can share with you insights of the Midrash or its commentaries about the motive to worship the Golden Calf. What makes the concept even more mysterious is that the Midrash says elsewhere that the Golden Calf was initially the idea of the “עֵרֶב רַב” – the mixed multitude of converts who left Egypt with the Israelites. Perhaps we can say that the Israelites too were hurtling towards a new reality that they were not ready for. They experienced wondrous plagues in Egypt. the splitting of the Red sea, grand miracles in the desert, and even direct communication from God on Mt. Sinai. Perhaps the Jews wanted a “time out.” This is going too fast. We’re not yet committed to this intense new way of life in the land of Israel. If the consequence of rejecting the first set of Luchot is the ultimate loss of Jewish sovereignty, so be it.
Adam also threw paradise away
There is a rarely sighted opinion that Adam ate from the forbidden fruit because he did not find life in the Garden of Eden to be challenging enough. Immortality, sovereignty, and, basically, nothing goes wrong. So he ate from the עֵ֕ץ הַדַּ֖עַת (Tree of Knowledge) to shake things up and allow for more opportunities for growth through adversity.
Can we speculate that the Israelites had the same motives? It would be generous to say so, although the rest of their moral failings throughout their forty years in the desert makes this explanation hard to accept.
It was meant to be
Perhaps another piece from the Midrash answers our question. Midrash Tanchuma reframes world history in the context of the famous quote in Kohelet Ecclesiastes:
לַכֹּ֖ל זְמָ֑ן וְעֵ֥ת לְכׇל־חֵ֖פֶץ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם
“There is a time and season for every experience under the heavens. (Kohelet 3:1)
The Midrash says:
זְמַן הָיָה לָעוֹלָם לְהִבָּרְאוֹת. זְמַן הָיָה לְדוֹר הַמַּבּוּל שֶׁיֹּאבְדוּ בַּמַּיִם. זְמַן הָיָה לְנֹחַ לְהִכָּנֵס לַתֵּבָה, וּזְמַן הָיָה לוֹ לָצֵאת מִמֶּנָּה. וּזְמַן הָיָה שֶׁיִּבָּרֵא אַבְרָהָם, וְכֵן לְכָל הָאָבוֹת. וּזְמַן הָיָה שֶׁיֵּרְדוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְמִצְרַיִם, וּזְמַן הָיָה שֶׁיֵּצְאוּ מִשָּׁם.
“There is a time for the world to be created, a time for the generation of the flood to be lost, a time for Noach to enter the ark. And a time to exit it. And a time for the creation of Avraham and the rest of our forefathers. And a time for our forefather to go down to Egypt. And a time to be redeemed from there.”
The Midrash continues:
וּזְמַן הָיָה שֶׁיַּעֲשׂוּ אֲחֵרִים אוֹתוֹ מַעֲשֶׂה
“And there was a time the others would commit that act” Which is a not so subtle reference to worshiping the Golden Calf which, as I mentioned, was initiated by the “עֵרֶב רַב” – the mixed multitude of converts. The Midrash then reverts to a direct quote from Kohelet:
עֵת לְהַשְׁלִיךְ אֲבָנִים וְעֵת כְּנוֹס אֲבָנִים
“There is a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones” (Kohelet 3:5).
The Midrash takes the creative license to say: “A time for throwing stones,” these are the first tablets, “and a time for gathering stones,” this is the time to carve out the second tablets of stone.
Interfering with free will
It is interesting to speculate whether the exalted reality of the first Luchot would have significantly diminished the free will of the Jewish People. After all, they would be living within a spiritual framework of reward and punishment that is radically different from other nations of the world. This might have unduly motivated them to keep the faith. Furthermore, would this arrangement detract from the free will of the nations of the world who would have to contend with a reality that seems to outwardly favor the members of one people over another? This would put unnatural pressure on other nations to convert. One of the central themes of Midrash Tanchuma is that God goes to great lengths to maintain free will.
Therefore “a time to throw stones” and “a time to gather stones” signifies yet another critical interval in history where God must get involved to keep destiny on track. In this case it might be to preserve free will.
So if you’re searching for an explanation of why the Jews seemed to have rejected an opportunity to live in an exalted spiritual state, don’t sweat it.
The Midrash wants you to know that it was meant to be.