When Moses descends from Mt Sinai carrying the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments and he sees the people worshipping the Golden Calf, he throws down the tablets and smashes them. These miraculous tablets were engraved by G-d, Himself, and invested – one would think – with unimaginable holiness. How could he do such a thing? The lesson Moses was teaching the Jewish people was that there is nothing in this world that is intrinsically holy. All spirituality in this world emanates from G-d and His Torah. The Jewish people sought in the Golden Calf, and in Moses himself, an intermediary to connect them with G-d. But one of the great teachings of Judaism is that we have a direct relationship with our Creator. We don’t need an intermediary. The root of holiness lies in loyalty and dedication to G-d and to His Torah, and that is something directly within reach of all of us.
One of the most dramatic moments in the Chumash takes place in this week’s parsha, Ki Tisa. When Moses descends from Mt Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments, which are engraved on the tablets, and he sees the people worshipping the Golden Calf, he throws down the tablets and smashes them.
Why did he do that? And why were the Jewish people worshiping the Golden Calf? Let’s go through the sequence of events. They heard the Ten Commandments straight from the Mouth of G-d, so to speak, and then Moses goes up the mountain to learn more about the Torah and to bring it down to the people. Time passes and they start to worry about where he is. In their minds, according to their calculations, he’s been delayed, so they think he’s not coming back. They panic, they form the Golden Calf to replace Moses and they start to worship it. When Moses does eventually come down the mountain and sees this shameful scene, he smashes the tablets.
We need to understand how he could do such a thing – these tablets were engraved by G-d Himself, as this parsha teaches us. What gives him the right to destroy such a holy object? The Rashbam, in his commentary, says Moses didn’t intend to break them, but was so overcome with despair and outrage at what was taking place that he lost the physical strength to hold the tablets, and when they began to slip from his grasp, he pushed them away so they wouldn’t shatter on his feet. That’s why the verse says: “Vayashlech” – that he “threw” the tablets.
However, most of the commentators learn that Moses wilfully and intentionally smashed the tablets. This needs explanation. The Gemara (Shabbos 87a) says this is one of three occasions where Moses took the initiative without waiting for G-d’s instruction, following which G-d ratified his course of action. Indeed, the Gemara says G-d actually congratulated Moses with the words: “Yishar kochecha” – which is the origin of the expression we use today: “Yeshar koach,” which literally means: “May your strength be straight.”
What was Moses’ logic? The Gemara explains his thought process as follows: a person who worships idols cannot offer up the Korban Pesach. If, for the transgression of idol worship, a person cannot participate even in one mitzvah, then if the entire Jewish people is involved in idol worship, they are no longer worthy to receive the Torah.
What is so fascinating is that this is recorded as one of Moses’ great achievements. In the very last verse of the Torah, where it lists all of his attributes and achievements, among them is “the strong hand and the great signs and wonders which Moses did in the eyes of all of Israel”. Rashi explains “in the eyes of all of Israel” to be referring to the smashing of the tablets.
We understand the greatness of his being the instrument through which the Jewish people were liberated from Egypt – of the “signs and wonders” that G-d enabled him to enact – and the fact that he led the Jewish people to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. But, why was he commended for breaking the tablets?
Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, explains the act as an admission of failure on Moses’ part. Leading the Jewish people to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah was his ultimate, G-d-given mission. And when he came down the mountain and saw the people worshipping the golden calf, he realised the entire enterprise had failed, and more than that, he had failed.
For Heaven’s sake
That was his greatness. A brave admission that all his efforts in bringing the people to this point were to no avail. In smashing the tablets, he showed that he was not in it for himself – he was in it for the cause! He was doing it for the ultimate motivation in life, L’sheim Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven.
So often, as human beings, when pursuing a noble cause, we nevertheless get caught up in our own self-interest; our own personal involvement takes over and distracts us from doing the right thing. Moses’ greatness was that he was able to make a decision to break the tablets and to disqualify the people from receiving the Torah, even though it meant he was admitting failure. Of course, in the end, G-d forgave the people and they were able to receive the Torah eventually, so Moses was able to complete his mission. However, at the time that he broke the tablets, he didn’t know what the outcome would be, and he was prepared to make that brave, bold move to admit the mission had failed.
One of our great commentators, the Meshech Chochma, Rav Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, has a completely different perspective on why Moses broke the tablets. He reads it as a teaching moment. Moses realised that the Jewish people had invested too much importance in him. When they thought they had lost him, they latched onto the Golden Calf as a substitute – some other tangible representation of holiness through which they could commune with G-d.
But they forgot one of the foundations of Judaism – that we have a direct relationship with our Creator. We don’t need an intermediary. Indeed, all spirituality in this world emanates from G-d and from His Torah. There is nothing physical that is intrinsically holy. Of course, the land of Israel is holy, but only because G-d invests it with His Presence. So, too, the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple – they have no intrinsic holiness, they’re holy only inasmuch as G-d invests them with His Presence. Without it, they are merely architectural structures.
This was the message Moses was trying to get through to the people – that all human beings are equal, and we all have equal access to G-d. The people didn’t need Moses and they certainly didn’t need a Golden Calf to have a connection with G-d. The root of holiness lies in loyalty and dedication to G-d and to His Torah, and that is something within direct reach of all of us.
Do you know how Moses taught them that lesson? He took what would be, in their eyes, the holiest object of all, the tablets, and he smashed them. He showed them that no object, not even these miraculous tablets engraved by G-d Himself, has intrinsic holiness. Don’t get fixated on objects and on people, he was saying, be connected to Hashem and His Torah.
That is the root of all holiness.