“Moses Shatters the Tablets”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tisah, we read the dramatic story of Moses receiving the tablets of the Ten Commandments from G-d on Mount Sinai. When Moses descends the mountain to return to the camp, he sees, to his great dismay, the people worshiping a Golden Calf. Although the tablets were made by G-d Himself, Moses casts them down and shatters them.

Notwithstanding the fact that Jewish tradition universally acknowledges Moses as the greatest of all prophets, the only one ever to see G-d face-to-face, our rabbis are confounded by Moses’ audacity to take it upon himself to break the tablets. The commentators struggle with Moses’s actions. If the tablets were indeed written by the finger of G-d and were of such great sanctity, destroying them would appear to be a serious denigration of the Divine presence.

Had a king of flesh and blood sent his trusted servant to deliver a sealed letter to a city, and the rebellious city refused to accept the king’s instructions, would it not be proper for the servant to return the letter intact to the king? Therefore, shouldn’t Moses have returned the tablets to the Al-mighty G-d, rather than disgrace them by breaking them?

In order to somehow justify Moses’ actions, the Rabbis, citing the Midrash, explain that as soon as Moses came close to the camp of Israel and within proximity of the impurity of the Golden Calf, the sacred letters flew off the tablets upon which they had been inscribed. The letters themselves cried out, “Woe to those people who heard with their own ears at Mount Sinai ‘Thou shalt not make for yourselves an idol or any depiction,’ and only 40 days later made for themselves a calf!” When Moses saw that the tablets were now blank, he cast them down, because they were no longer sacred. In effect, the messenger tore up the king’s epistle. And since it no longer had the King’s seal on it, it was like any other piece of paper.

Other commentators suggest that once the letters flew off the tablets, the stone tablets became extraordinarily heavy. Moses cast the tablets down because he could no longer carry them without the spirituality and the holiness that made the tablets light. This interpretation is supported by the fact that until Moses shattered the tablets they were referred to as (Exodus 34:29) “loo’choht ha’ay’doot,” tablets of testimony. Once he cast them down, they were simply called tablets (“loo’chot”). Now that they were no longer testimony, they became heavy like a dead body. Moses said to himself, if so, they need to be buried and not returned to the Al-mighty.

Other commentators wonder why Moses brought the tablets down at all from the mountain. After all, G-d had told him that the people had made for themselves a Golden Calf. Moses should have decided while he was at the top of the mountain that the people were unworthy of receiving the tablets, and should have refused to accept them in the first place. The rabbis explain that there is a profound difference between hearing that people are worshiping the Golden Calf and actually seeing the people worshiping the Golden Calf. Once Moses saw with his own eyes, he could not bear the sight and lost the strength to carry them, so they fell from his hands.

Our rabbis derive a profound message for posterity from Moses’ decision to bring the tablets down from Mount Sinai even though the Al-mighty had told him that the people were sinning. Notwithstanding the fact that G-d Himself had told him of the people’s sinful actions, Moses refused to accept the evil report from G-d until he saw what was happening with this own eyes. He was determined to give the people the benefit of the doubt even though G-d Himself had reported otherwise!

Some of the commentators contend that when the Al-mighty reported to him of the peoples’ actions, Moses thought that only a small number of people had taken part in the worship of the Golden Calf, and was under the impression that even those had already repented. But when he came down and saw otherwise, he was angry and broke the tablets.

Several commentators make a keen observation based on the nuances found in Exodus 19:19. The verse states: “Vah’y’hee kah’ah’sher kah’rav el ha’mah’chah’neh, vah’yah’ahr et ha’ay’gel ooh’m’choh’loht, vah’yee’char ahf Moshe, vah’yash’laych mee’yah’dav et ha’loo’choht, vah’y’shah’bayr oh’tam tah’chat ha’har,” And it came to pass as soon as he [Moses] came close to the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, that Moses grew angry and cast the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the base of the mountain. Not only did the profound difference between hearing and seeing upset Moses deeply, but what truly outraged him was sensing how much the Jewish people were enjoying their idolatrous revelry–celebrating with song, dance, and music. Had they ever shown the same enthusiasm for a Passover seder? Had they ever displayed the same joy at a Jewish wedding? Did they ever get so carried away on Shavuot or Simchat Torah? That’s what hurt Moses profoundly.

Perhaps Moses knew that this “alien joy” was going to be a deeply embedded trait of the Jewish people that would endure for millennia. He realized that before him was a nation that would be prepared to consistently put their lives on the line for every “ism” that came their way. These were a people who were destined to blindly embrace communism, worship at the feet of the great theorists of philosophy and psychology, place themselves at the forefront of every self-help and new-age movement, “EST,” kabbalah, politics, and would regularly oppose war, no matter how just and necessary. Would they show the same selflessness during the Holocaust, as their brothers and sisters were being systematically exterminated? Would they show the same enthusiasm in their support for the State of Israel?

Perhaps it was this aberrant posture and distorted disposition of the Jewish people that Moses saw and tried desperately to quell by doing something dramatic to protest their enthusiasm, their dance and their song.

Sadly, judging from the way things are today, his efforts do not seem to have been particularly effective, but it’s never too late to change!

May you be blessed.