“Which You Broke”
The simple reading of the story goes like this: After the Jews created a Golden Calf, Moses smashed the stone tablets created by G-d, engraved with the Ten Commandments. Moses and G-d then "debated" the appropriate response to this transgression and it was decided that if the people would truly repent, G-d would give them a second chance. Moses hewed a second set of stone tablets; G-d engraved them also with the Ten Commandments, and Moses gave them to the Jewish people.
Yet the sages present an intriguing and loaded interpretation to a verse in Deut. It is the verse in which Moses recounts how following the breaking of the first tablets, G-d tells him to carve out a second set of tablets, “and I shall inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets which you have broken (1).”
The words “which you have broken” seem superfluous. By now we are well aware that Moses was the one who broke the first tablets given to him by G-d atop Mt. Sinai. Throughout the preceding chapter (Deut. Ch. 9), Moses has been recounting in great detail how he came to break those first tablets, constructed and engraved by G-d. Why does G-d need to say to reiterate to Moses that he was the one who broke the tablets -- “the first tablets which you broke (2)”?
The addition – “which you have broken” -- is not only unnecessary; it’s also discourteous. It reminds us of the husband who tells his wife, “I will repair the computer which you’ve broken…” Despite the temptation, you’d do better without those last three hurtful words, adding insult to injury. Why, then, does G-d feel the need to remind Moses that he was the one who broke the tablets (3)?
In a rather dramatic interpretation, the sages explain that with these words G-d was not insulting Moses, but rather affirming him. They point out that the Hebrew word asher (“which”) can also be pronounced ishur, which means “to affirm” and “to praise.” Thus, G-d's words to Moses, “the first tablets which you broke” (asher shebarta) can also be understood as: “I affirm your having broken them” or “Thank you (yishar kochacha) for breaking them.” G-d affirmed and praised Moses for breaking the tablets (4).
Why? Moses, outraged by the sight of a golden calf erected by the Hebrews as a deity, smashed the stone tablets constructed by G-d. Moses apparently felt that the Jews were undeserving of them, and that it would be inappropriate to give them this Divine gift before they underwent a transformation. But why was G-d pleased with this act? Moses could have hidden them or returned them to their heavenly maker?
Sure, there were benefits to the smashing of the tablets, rather than concealing them. The drama of the moment certainly left an extraordinarily profound impact on the Israelites. Or on a deeper level, the midrash explains that by breaking the tablets of the covenant Moses was destroying evidence of the “marriage contract” between the Jews and G-d, thus absolving them from the sin of adultery (5).
Yet the words “yishar kochacha sheshebarta,” “thank you for breaking” indicate that the very act of breaking the tablets, not only its consequences, was profoundly positive. How?
What is more, the rabbis teach us, "The whole tablets and the broken tablets nestled inside the Ark of the Covenant (6)." The Jews proceeded to gather the broken fragments of the first set of tablets and had them stored in the Ark, in the Tabernacle, together with the second whole tablets. Both sets of tablets were later taken into the Land of Israel and kept side by side in the Ark, situated in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem.
This seems strange. Why would they place the broken tablets in the Holy of Holies? After all, these fragments were a constant reminder of the great moral failure of the Jewish people (7). Why not just disregard them, or deposit them in a safe isolated place?
A Disturbing Eulogy
The enigma grows manifold when we learn that in its eulogy for Moses – the greatest prophet who ever lived -- the Torah chooses this episode of smashing the tablets as the greatest moment of his life.
In the closing verses of Deuteronomy we read: “Moses, the servant of G-d, died there in the land of Moab... And there arose not since a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom G-d knew face to face; [who performed] all the signs and wonders which G-d sent [Moses] to do in the land of Egypt... [who equaled] that mighty hand, those great fearsome deeds, [and that] which Moses did before the eyes of all Israel.”
Rashi (8), in his commentary on Torah, interprets the last words – “which Moses did before the eyes of all Israel” -- as follows: “That his heart emboldened him to break the tablets before their eyes, as it is written, ‘[and I took hold of the two tablets and threw them from my two hands] and I broke them before your eyes.’ G-d's opinion then concurred with his opinion, as it is written, ‘which you broke -- I affirm your strength for having broken them.”
This is shocking. Following all of the grand achievements of Moses, the Torah chooses to conclude its tribute to Moses by alluding to this episode! Granted that Moses was justified in breaking the tablets, but can this be said to embody his greatest achievement? How about his taking the Jews out of Egypt? Molding them into a people? Splitting the Red Sea? Receiving the Torah from G-d and transmitting it to humanity? Shepherding them for forty years in a wilderness?
Why does the Torah choose this tragic and devastating episode to capture the zenith of Moses’ life and as the appropriate theme with which to conclude the entire Torah, all five books of Moses?!
Two Dimensions of Life
Perhaps we need to examine this entire episode from a deeper vantage point.
The two sets of tablets – the whole ones and the broken ones – symbolize two dimensions in our lives: We enjoy moment of wholeness, but we also struggle with periods of brokenness. There are times when we feel connected to the sacredness and spirituality of life, when we feel inner wholesomeness and dignity, but there are times when we feel fragmented, alienated from G-d, distant from our destiny.
Life is full of paradoxes. It is kind and cruel. The same sunrise bespeaks promise for one person, agony for another. Love is so healing for one heart, causing so much pain for another. Life offers its engagers profound moments of joy and satisfaction, but also much heartache and struggle: The hardships of daily living, emotional, mental or physical agony, the turmoil of family life, health challenges, financial hurdles, the pain of raising children, and the unparalleled pain of losing loved ones (9).
And the inner emptiness -- the one we attempt to eclipse via shopping, vacation, alcohol, reading, surfing the web and many other methods, yet it remains stubbornly intact, refusing to lay low, claiming its hold on a human being created to serve a higher calling.
And even when things are going smoothly and we have not much to complain about, we are often confused and bewildered by the very patterns of life. Why must we work so hard for so many decades just to make a few dollars so that we can relax? What’s the point?
In the Shattered Pieces
It is usually futile to respond to these mysteries intellectually. Cerebral insights do not stand a chance to the rawness of pain. Mathematical equations possess not the power to assuage the agony endured by so many pure hearts. Only by facing the brutality of life with honestly and engaging it with our entire beings, can we hope to discover some of the secrets and opportunities contained within the broken components of our lives.
Which is why the sages tell us that not only the whole tablets, but also the broken ones, were situated in the holy of holies. This conveyed the message articulated at the very genesis of Judaism: The broken pieces of your life are as sacred as its wholesome parts. G-d is present not only in the complete tablets, but also in the shattered ones.
“Thank you for breaking the tablets,” G-d tells Moses. The broken tablets, representing the shattered pieces of human existence, have their own story to tell; they contain a light all their own. Truth is found not only in wholesomeness, but also – perhaps primarily -- in the broken fragments of the human spirit (10). There are moments when G-d desires that we connect to Him as wholesome people, with clarity and a sense of fullness; there are yet deeper moments when He desires that we find Him in the shattered experiences of our lives.
We hope and pray to always enjoy the “whole tablets,” but when we encounter the broken ones, we ought not to run from them or become dejected by them; with tenderness we ought to embrace them and bring them into our “holy of holies,” recalling the observation of one of the Rebbe’s, "there is nothing more whole than a broken heart."
It is on this note that the Torah chooses to culminate its tribute to Moses’ life. The greatest achievement of Moses was his ability to show humanity how G-d was present in the fragments of the human heart; in the broken pieces and paradoxes of our daily lives.
(This essay is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, on the 20th of Av 5725, August 18th 1965, on the occasion of his father’s yartziet (11)).
1) Deut. 10:2.
2) The answer given by Rashi to Exodus 34:1 – that G-d was explaining to Moses why it was his responsibility to carve out the second tablets: “You broke the first ones; you carve out new ones” -- cannot apply here, since the Torah interrupts the instruction to Moses to carve out new tablets with the injunction to build an ark for the tablets.
3) In fact, Jewish law prohibits telling a person who has remedied a past misdoing: “Remember your past actions.”
4) See Talmud Shabbas 87a and rashi ibid; Rashi to Deut. 34:12, the final verse of the Torah.
5) Midrash Rabah and rashi to Exodus 34:1.
6) Talmud Bava Basra 14a.
7) On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the high priest would not perform the service with his usual golden garments, since gold was remotely reminiscent of the golden calf. Yet in this instance, throughout the entire year, the very symptom of the golden calf – the broken tablets – were stored in the holy of holies! Cf. Ramban and Ritva to Bava Basra ibid; Likkutei Sichos vol 26 Parshas Ki Sisa.
8) Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), whose work is the most basic of biblical commentaries.
9) Maimonidies in his Guide to the Perplexed states that the moments of pain far exceed the moments of joy in life.
10) “G-d said to Moses: ‘Do not be distressed over the First Tablets, which contained only the Ten Commandments. In the Second Tablets I am giving you, you will also have Halachah, Midrash and Aggadah” (Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 46:1.) This means, that it was precisely the breaking of the tablets that became the catalyst for a far deeper divine revelation.
11) In this talk, in which the Rebbe broke down twice, he described the agony of many deeply spiritual Jews put in situations where they are unable to study Torah and observe its Mitzvos. “There are times when G-d wants your mitzvos,” the Rebbe said, “and other times when He wants your ‘broken tablets.’”