Piny Hackenbroch
Senior Rabbi Woodside Park Synagogue, London

Our imperfection is the source of our blessing

Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.

Parker J. Palmer

The sin of the Golden Calf, and in its aftermath, the smashing the tablets was a low point in our history and at least initially leaves us perturbed with more questions than answers.

How could the Jewish people do it? How could Moses do it?

From the Zenith in Jewish history of Receiving the Torah and   Sinaic revelation, only forty days later saw  the Jewish people in an act of seeming betrayal worshipping  a Golden Calf. How did they descend to idolatry?

For our fledgling nation in its infancy, the Jewish people felt totally dependent on something outside themselves to channel their faith.  The Kuzari suggested, that among the nations of that era physical forms and symbols functioned as focal points for prayer and meditation similar to our Synagogues today. When Moses failed to appear, they reasoned, let us serve something tangible like the other nations without denying God, who took us out of Egypt.

According to the Kuzari, worshipping the Golden Calf was not a severe sin in and of itself. He proves this, by pointing to the fact that only 3000 people were killed as a result. During all this time neither the miracles of the Manna, the pillar of smoke nor prophecy ceased to exist, for the Israelites their only sin was envisioning God by means of a form without being commanded to do so.

Building on the approach of the Kuzari, perhaps we can suggest that the influence of the Egyptian society and culture was profound and lingered long after the Jews left Egypt. We know, that the Jews in fact took with them idols from Egypt.  As the saying goes, it was easier to take the Jews out of Egypt than it was to take Egypt out of the Jews. In ancient Egypt, worship was conducted not individually but spirituality was seen to be the monopoly of the few, Pharaoh himself was deified.

For the Jewish people that left Egypt, it was Moses who performed the 10 plagues and miracles in Egypt, it was Moses who split the Sea and it was Moses who had spoken to God. It may well have been, that the Jewish people saw the only way to serve G-d was through Moses. They themselves did not feel were worthy of having a relationship with G-d.  It was not so much their lack of faith in G-d that led them to build a Golden Calf but rather their lack of belief in themselves. In Moses absence, they felt vulnerable and built a Golden calf to take his place and be that crutch and  conduit for spirituality and for the service of G-d.

We may well wonder, that being the case how could Moses of his own accord smash the tablets of stone he could have handed them back to G-d on Sinai, why did he go to the trouble of descending the mountain to smashing them in full gaze of the Jewish people?

In addressing these issues in true Jewish fashion let us answer with another question. We are familiar with the third of the Ten commandments; one is not permitted to take G-d’s name in vain. This law implies that one is not permitted to erase or wipe out G-d’s Name, if so, how could Moses smash the tablets of his own volition?

A majestic and profound approach[1] based on the Minchat Chinuch can be applied.  Maimonides states that the prohibition of erasing G-d’s Name applies in the context of an act of destruction for example burning or tearing up sacred texts or a Sefer torah. Where the act of erasing is for a constructive purpose then it is permissible. An example of this principle   arises in regards to the case surrounding  a question of infidelity in marriage, the matter is resolved through the Sota waters. The name of G-d is erased and placed in the water. This is not only permissible but obligated in the interests of upholding marital harmony in the home.

Moses’ act of smashing the tablets was not deemed an act of destruction but rather construction. He received the approbation from no less than G-d himself who surprisingly congratulated him on smashing His handiwork and in fact, this act was later to be seen as one of Moses greatest most enduring accomplishments.

Moses on hearing the news of the Golden Calf, knowing the Jewish people and the ordeal in Egypt they had endured, was immediately cognisant of the error in their ways. The people felt they needed someone or something concrete to channel their love for G-d. They were just learning to walk and felt they need hand holding.  To give them the tablets would have led them to replacing the worship of the Golden calf with the worship of the tablets of stone.

By smashing the tablets Moses demonstrated that G-d was not to be found per sei through the worship of things or people.  Our faith is not for the few but for the many. With all our imperfections we are expected to approach God directly. Those broken shards from the tablets were placed in the Ark to demonstrate that what G-d demands from us is sincerity. Nothing could be in G-d’s eyes more whole than a broken heart. Like the shards of the tablets it is from our brokenness rather than perfection that each of us can and are expected to approach God.

The shattering of the tablets and the golden Calf was shattering of the illusions of the Jewish people and was considered Moses greatest teaching and legacy.

Very often we all feel inept and inadequate in facing the challenges of life. Our shortcomings   hold us back from taking on responsibility believing that imperfection deems our possible contribution unworthy in serving our people and G-d. The broken shards of the tablets that were placed in the holy ark, are a timeless reminder of our ability to directly relate to G-d as simply us, with all our frailties. Moses smashing of the tablets resonates as much today as at Sinai. It is for each of us to smash our misconceptions and illusions that hold us back in life, empowering us to live the meaningful lives we deserve.

[1]  Part of this idea can be found in Yevakshu Torah by Rav Pinchas Roberts

About the Author
Rabbi Hackenbroch is Senior Rabbi of Woodside Park Synagogue, London, UK, as well as a commercial mediator, Holocaust Educator and sought after speaker.