The Whole World in His Hand — Parashat Ki Tisa 5776

Moshe goes up to Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights. At the end of his stay Hashem gives him the two luchot upon which the Ten Commandments are written. Meanwhile, back at base camp, Am Yisrael become impatient and they build a golden calf (egel) that they do or don’t worship, depending upon who you ask. Hashem tells Moshe what has happened, and that He wants to destroy Am Yisrael. Moshe comes to the rescue and catastrophe is averted [Shemot 32:14] “Hashem had mercy on His nation, and He did not perform the evil deed that He had threatened to perform.”

Moshe returns to base camp still holding the two luchot. When he is greeted by wild hordes dancing in front of the egel, he is overcome by anger [Shemot 32:19] “Moshe became infuriated; he threw the luchot from his hands and he broke them at the foot of the mountain”. Let’s turn back the clock just a bit. As Moshe approaches the camp on his way back from the mountain the Torah takes a detour and describes the luchot [Shemot 32:16]: “The luchot were the work of Hashem and the writing was the writing of Hashem, engraved on the luchot”. This description is completely out of place. When Hashem first gives Moshe the luchot, before the egel is built, the Torah describes the luchot with the following words [Shemot 31:18]: “Luchot hewn from stone, engraved by the Finger of Hashem”. It would have been logical that the entire description of the luchot would be given at the moment that the luchot are given to Moshe. Why is the description broken down into two parts, and why is the second part of the description given only after Moshe descends from the mountain? This question is asked by the Ramban. The Ramban answers that the Torah is stressing that the luchot were made by Hashem, and yet even so, Moshe felt it was necessary to shatter them. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh suggests that Moshe brought these Divinely fashioned luchot to the people in an unsuccessful attempt to entice them to cease worshipping the egel.

I’d like to propose a slightly different approach. In a previous shiur[1] we discussed some major differences between the first set of luchot and the second set of luchot, as pointed out by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin: The first set of luchot were hewn by Hashem himself. The engraving on the first set of luchot was miraculous – certain letters literally hung in midair. The second set of luchot was far more mundane, and it was Moshe who was responsible for their preparation. This time Hashem commands Moshe [Shemot 34:1], “Hew for yourself two tablets like unto the first, and I will write upon these tablets the words that were on the first tablets”. Further, the Torah tells us that not only did Moshe hew the luchot, but he did the writing also. The writing was plain old human manuscript.

Rabbi Riskin suggests that the second set of luchot were a tikkun, a repair, for the first set. A gift is often received with an “easy come, easy go” attitude. All too often a contestant on a game show such as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” will try to increase his winnings under the assumption that if worse comes to worse and he loses, he still hasn’t “lost” in a real sense. He still has the same amount of money he had before he started playing. On the other hand, a person who has to expend effort, monetary or otherwise, in order to acquire something acts toward his acquisition in a totally different manner[2]. If the object is lost, then time, effort, and money have been wasted. When Hashem cursed Adam by telling him [Bereishit 3:19] “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread”, it was actually a blessing in disguise. Because of the work expended in its manufacturing, even a piece of bread can give man satisfaction. Similarly, because Am Yisrael expended nothing in the acquisition of the first luchot, it was relatively easy for them to build the egel. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. In essence, their miraculous nature was actually a hindrance. The second luchot, on the other hand, required a human investment in both time and labour. It would be much more difficult to throw these away.

Rav Moshe Feinstein offers a similar explanation. Writing in “Darash Moshe [Volume 1]”, Rav Moshe writes that the first luchot contained the essence of the Torah that had been given at Sinai, and so were completely Hashem’s work. As a result, they sent a message that it would be impossible to plumb the depths of the Torah without supernatural powers. What followed was the egel. The truth is that the Torah was given for regular human beings to understand using their own natural powers. We have the capability to reach the loftiest levels of Torah – all it requires is some hard work. For this reason Hashem had Moshe participate in the preparation of the second set of luchot.

The common denominator of the explanations of Rav Moshe and Rabbi Riskin is that they see life as a dichotomy. There are two types of luchot – Divine luchot and mundane luchot. The Divine luchot didn’t cut the mustard, so Hashem modified the message by giving us the mundane luchot. The problem with this thesis is that it makes it seem as if Hashem – Heaven forbid – had erred by fashioning the first set of luchot without any human participation, and that He “made up for it” with the second set. Let’s return to Moshe, descending Mount Sinai. The Torah tells us that [Shemot 32:15] “Moshe turned and went down from the mountain [bearing] the two tablets of the testimony in his hand” When Moshe breaks the luchot, the Torah describes this as [Shemot 32:19] ““Moshe became infuriated; he threw the luchot from his hands and he broke them”. The word “hand” is repeated, as if the Torah is trying to emphasize something[3]. I suggest that Moshe is trying to teach Am Yisrael a huge lesson, that the Spiritual and the mundane are not two parallel planes of existence, but, rather, that they intersect, and that physical actions performed in our corporeal world have a tangible effect on the spiritual world.

We have the capability through our actions to sanctify the profane and to stain the sacred. For this reason most mitzvot are performed using physical objects: we shake the lulav, we light the Chanukah candles, and we eat matzo. The performance of these mitzvot connects two worlds that might seem to be infinitely far from each other. I once heard a shiur about the mamzer – the Jewish child born from a forbidden relationship. This child is shunned. He is forbidden from marrying and he cannot be called to the Torah[4]. Why? What has this child done? Why is he being punished for a crime that he did not commit? The Rav who gave the shiur answered that the mamzer shows that whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, and whether we agree with it or not, what we do makes a difference. Things we do in the physical world have a tangible effect on the spiritual world, and these effects are not limited to worlds that we cannot see. They have a real effect on our lives right down here on planet earth.

This is the meaning of the words “in his hands”. It is always in our hands, even when it looks like Hashem has the ball. Moshe brought the luchot to Am Yisrael. He wanted them to see their miraculous nature. He wanted them to see G-dliness. And then he wanted to shatter the luchot right in front of their eyes. A Midrash teaches that when Moshe shattered the luchot the letters flew skyward while the sapphire upon which they were written turned to shards at his feet. Human action had separated the sacred from the profane, but human action could just as easily fuse the two again.

It was, it is, and it will always remain, all in our hands[5].

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya, and Yossef ben Bracha.

[1] Ki Tisa 5761

[2] This can be explained via Prospect Theory, which won Daniel Kahneman a Nobel Prize in Economics, and upon which the Freakonomics series of books is based.

[3] Rav Elchanan Samet would call this a “key word”.

[4] Hence the word “mamzer” has become one of the most derogatory words that a Jew can use.

[5] We can use this thesis to understand the explanations of Rabbi Risking and Rav Moshe. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to do this right now. Like they used to tell us in the Technion, “I leave this as an exercise for the students”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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