Jack Nahmod
Jack Nahmod

Perfect misses the point

There they were in Moshe’s hands, arguably the single holiest object provided to humanity: luchot ha’even, the tablets of stone, created and inscribed directly by God…

We first learned that Moshe would receive these tablets in the Torah portion Ve’Eileh Ha’Mishpatim (“These are the Laws”):

The Lord said to Moshe, “Come up to me at the mountain, and be there. I will give you tablets of stone, with the Torah and the commandment that I have written, so you may teach them.” Moshe rose up, and Joshua his minister. Moshe went up into the mount of God. (Ex. 24:12-13)

We read about the Tablets again this week in Parashat Ki Tisa after God instructs Moshe regarding the Tabernacle and Shabbat:

He gave to Moshe, when He finished talking with him upon Mount Sinai, two tablets of Testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God. (Ex. 31:18)

Thus we see Moshe ascend on the mountain and receive the word of God, written directly by God. Unfortunately, while Moshe is with God, Bnei Yisrael  have Aaron construct egel ha’zahav, the Golden Calf. Upon seeing this, God informs Moshe of their sin, and says they therefore must all die. Moshe pleads with God to spare them, and God relents (though they will not be spared from harsh punishment altogether). Moshe then descends:

Moshe turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tablets of the Testimony were in his hand. The tablets were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. (Ex. 32:15-16)

Moshe’s descent is fraught with symbolism. He is taking the presumably perfect product of God’s work – an ideal – and bringing it “down to earth,” to the reality of a nascent nation that has already compromised its newfound sanctity.

At this moment, is it possible that the ideal that Moshe carries in his hands, this divine creation, is powerful enough to overcome and negate the corrupted reality below? Moshe seems to answer this question for us; he is overcome by the corrupt reality, and negates God’s Tablets:

It was, as soon as he approached the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing. Moshe’s anger burned hot; he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them beneath the mount. (Ex. 32:19)

Pause for a moment to consider what a loss this was for our world. The holiest single object ever introduced into the world, lost in a flash of anger. What if we could have that moment back? Would the world be a different place with the original luchot still in it?

It is worth noting that the language describing the anger that Moshe succumbs to – “va’yichar af Moshe / Moshe’s anger flared” – is the same language describing the wrath of God that Moshe assuaged, “va’yichar api / let my anger flare”. Assuming that the ideal is to not act on one’s anger, Moshe articulates to God a standard that he himself does not meet.

The positive lesson in this, it seems to me, is that we can sometimes influence others to achieve something what we ourselves cannot. Of course, in this case it might help that God is the One that Moshe influences, and an omnipotent Being is likely to have an advantage when trying to achieve something. On the other hand, if even an omnipotent God – One who need not answer to anybody – responds positively to implorations, how much more can we hope for positive results when trying to influence people.

However, there is also a cautionary note here, regarding self awareness. When an occasion arises where we can influence someone to strive for an ideal, we must be mindful of our own limitations, both with regard to how we approach that person and whether we judge someone for falling short of what we consider the ideal.

Here, Moshe seems to fall short of the ideal that he himself asked of God only moments earlier, and we pay dearly. And although we receive a replacement set of Tablets later in this week’s portion, which are still undeniably holy, they differ fundamentally from the first:

The Lord said to Moshe, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first. I will write upon these tablets the words that were in the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain… He cut two tablets of stone like the first; Moshe rose up early in the morning, and went up to Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him. He took in his hand the two tablets of stone. The Lord descended in the cloud, and stood with him there… (Ex. 34:1-5)

These Tablets, unlike the first, are cut by Moshe, not God; it is up to Moshe to make them “like the first.” It will still be God’s words, written by God, but the basic raw material, the writing surface, is provided by Moshe. And these second Tablets, although inscribed by God, are not inscribed by “the finger of God,” as were the first; a vivid image of direct authorship is missing.

It is worth dwelling on the precise language describing Moshe’s act of preparing the second Tablets: “p’sol lecha, cut for yourself.” The first word is striking, reminiscent as it is of the dibrah that prohibits making idols:

You shall not make for you any hewn image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Ex. 20:4)

It is this very Commandment, this prohibition against making a pesel – a hewn image – that the Israelites seem to violate with egel hazahav, the Golden Calf, causing Moshe to smash the original Tablets! Yet, when it comes time to replace those Tablets, Moshe is told to do the very thing – p’sol lecha – that got us into trouble in the first place!

Thus while on the one hand God determines that we must be punished for the pesel we made, the Golden Calf, God on the other hand validates our need for p’sol lecha, for cutting and creating something for ourselves. Hence Moshe is told “lecha, for you,” rather than simply “p’sol, cut.” This cutting is for us, for our benefit; with our active involvement and investment, we are far more likely to learn what is being taught.

This is a significant value with regard to education, of course. As Israel Scheffler writes:

“Education…implies caring, but caring cannot be coerced or brought about by formula. We can, however, at least make it possible for caring to emerge by providing favorable conditions, respecting all the while the independent student’s autonomy in directing his or her own life’s path. To provide favorable circumstances for caring to emerge is to enable the subject matter to become the property of the pupil. By this I mean that it is no longer to be seen as the alien possession of the teacher or other adults or authorities. When a pupil can say ‘It’s mine,’ s/he has acquired ownership.” The Concept of the Educated Person, excerpted in Visions of Jewish Education, Supplement: Israel Scheffler, eds. Seymour Fox, Daniel Marom and Israel Scheffler (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), at 229.

Yes, having ideals and striving for perfection are important. But when the time comes to put those ideals into actions, to share and to teach them – to bring them alive – a top-down approach is unlikely to succeed, even, it seems, when the One at the top is God.

For Further Study

As discussed above, God informs Moshe up on the mountain what the Israelites are doing below, and Moshe manages to calm God down. Yet when Moshe himself descends and sees what is happening, he becomes enraged and smashes the Tablets. Was this a spontaneous fit of rage? Didn’t Moshe already know what was happening and have time to prepare himself? There are several commentaries regarding this moment of Moshe’s anger, which occurs in Chapter 32 verse19. Which of the following makes the most sense to you, or resonates the most? Which depicts Moshe and/or the Israelites favorably, which not as much?

  1. Isaac ben Moses Arama (c. 1420 – 1494. Spain): “Perhaps he saw fit to do it in order to teach them a lesson and shock them, as our Sages say (Shabbat 105b) in the name of R. Yohanan b. Nuri: “He who wears his garments in anger and breaks vessels in anger and scatters his money in anger shall be accounted in your eyes as one who worshipped idols, for such are the workings of the Evil Inclination. Today it says to him, Do this! And tomorrow it says to him, do that! Till it eventually prompts him to worship idols and he goes along and does it.”
  1. Ovadiah ben Yaacov Sforno ( c.1475 -1550 Italy): “The two tablets of testimony in his hand”: He thought that when he reached them they would have already repented of their deed, and if not, he would break the tablets in front of them in order to stir them to repentance. “He saw the calf and dancing”: Then he saw that they were reveling in their iniquity cf.: “when you did evil and rejoiced,” and despaired of being able to remedy matters and spur them to repent and become worthy of the tablets.
  2. Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808–1888): “As easy as it is to enlighten the intellectually misled, so it is difficult to recall to repentance the unruly mob demoralized by corrupt and immoral behavior. So long as Moses knew only of the sin of the golden calf and its deification, he felt that he could bring the people back to the path of the Torah. Consequently he brought down the two tablets. But as soon as he saw the calf and the dancing, he realized that the idolatrous poison had already wrought its havoc and given free reign to their evil passions, breaking all the bounds of moral conduct. He now realized that a new people would have to be created, capable of fulfilling this Torah. Without a moment’s forethought and hesitation he cast the tablets from his hands and broke them, indicating that the people were neither worthy nor capable of receiving the Torah he had brought them down.”
  3. The Netziv – Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Judah Berlin (Russia & Polan 1817-1893): “The text describes the greatness of Moses, how he took the calf and burned it and no man resisted him, whereas they had forced Aaron to make it. This was because Moses, with deep psychological insight had not broken the Tablets on the mount, but resolved to bide his time in order to do it when it would make the greatest impact on them, shocking them and grieving them to such an extent, that they would not have the heart.”
  4. Meshech Hokhma – R. Meir Simha (1843-1925): Now we may understand why Moses on perceiving the physical and mental state of the people promptly broke the Tablets. He feared they would deify them as they had done the calf. Had he brought them the Tablets intact, they would have substituted them for the calf and not reformed their ways. But now that he had broken the Tablets, they realized how far they had fallen short of true faith. It was the first Tablets that were the work of God which were broken, not the Tablets hewn by Moses, which remained whole; no holiness resides in any created thing other than that invested in it by Israel’s observance of the Torah according to God’s will and holy name.
About the Author
Rabbi Jack Nahmod is a middle school administrator at a school in Manhattan. He has a Masters Degree in Jewish Studies and is also an attorney.
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