If you have ever witnessed a chinaware plate shatter– whether on TV or in person– it almost feels as if time is delayed and a camera concentrates on its collision with the floor. This scene is merely an inkling of Moshe breaking the Luchot (Tablets), moments before he was supposed to deliver them to Bnei Yisrael. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik offers a profound analysis of Moshe dropping the Luchot, identifying a paradigm for our own lives.
In Parshat Ki Tisa, Moshe climbs up Har Sinai to learn the entirety of the Torah and obtain the two Luchot from Hashem. During those 40 days and nights, Bnei Yisrael was anxiously awaiting his arrival. Unfortunately, they miscalculated when Moshe should have returned and, through insecurity and impatience, they demanded that Aharon assist them in creating a golden statue of a calf, infamously known as the Chet HaEigel.
After this transpired, Hashem informed Moshe of Bnei Yisrael’s corruption and he consequently pleaded for their forgiveness, successfully advocating on their behalf. Then, Hashem sends Moshe down to the people.
The pasuk describes the following occurrence, saying, “As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the Tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Shemot 32:19). Later, Moshe makes new Luchot and brings them back up Har Sinai. But why did Moshe throw the Luchot in the first place?
There are myriad commentaries who explore this question, but the Rashbam offers a particularly interesting and seemingly simplistic approach. He posits that upon seeing the golden calf, Moshe became physically inept and unable to continue carrying the weight of the Luchot. As a result, Moshe needed to throw the Luchot so they would not drop on his feet, similar to how one tossing a burden which becomes too weighty. The Yalkut Shimoni shares a similar perspective on the event.
In this version of Moshe breaking the Luchot, Rav Soloveitchik identifies a profound paradigm. Simple physics, he explains, would confirm that carrying an object down a mountain is easier than carrying the same object upwards. Nevertheless, we see that Moshe found the Luchot to be too heavy on his descent, but did not face difficulty on his later ascent.
Here, Rav Soloveitchik introduces the concept of cheftza (object) and gavra (subject), the former being one acted upon and the latter being one who acts. When Moshe was descending Har Sinai, he was weakened and sapped of his strength from Bnei Yisrael’s corruption with the Golden Calf. When he returned up to Har Sinai with the new Luchot, he was invigorated by his love for Hashem and yearned to confirm His forgiveness for Bnei Yisrael. Moshe was a cheftza when he broke the Luchot and became a gavra when he returned with the new Luchot.
There are two particular aspects of Rav Soloveitchik’s idea that are so empowering. The first is seeing that even Moshe, the greatest leader of the Jewish people, can fall and succumb to obstacles in his path. The second is that once we stop victimizing ourselves and stop identifying as the cheftza, we can become the gavra; then, we will be able to partner with Hashem and radically change the course of our lives.