Ki Tisa: Broken Tablets: An Achievement?


This week’s lesson is dedicated by Rabbi Shmulik & Chaya Mushka Greenberg in memory of their grandfather Rabbi Gershon Mendel Garelik and in honor of – תבלחט”א – their grandmother, Mrs. Bassie Garelik.

When the Torah eulogizes Moses, it mentions the breaking of the Tablets as one of his greatest virtues. Doesn’t that seem ludicrous?

Can breaking the Tablets be greater than receiving them?

The Torah concludes with the words, “before the eyes of all Israel.” Rashi explains: “This refers to the incident where he was stirred to smash the Tablets before their eyes, as it is said, ‘I shattered them before your eyes.’ G-d approved; the verse states, ‘[the first Tablets] which you shattered.’ [As the Talmud explains it, G-d said to Moses:] ‘Well done for shattering them!’”

This is very bizarre.

In this section, the Torah sings Moses’ praises: “No other Prophet like Moses has arisen in Israel, who knew G-d face to face. No one else could reproduce the signs and miracles that G-d let him display in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his land, or any of the mighty acts or great sights that Moses displayed before the eyes of all Israel.”

The notion that the words “before the eyes of all Israel” is a reference to the breaking of the Tablets (“he was stirred to smash the tablets before their eyes”) seems to be the very opposite of the literal understanding of the text, which speaks of Moses’ virtues.

It is true that G-d approved of his decision to break the tablets, and he does deserve credit for sensing G-d’s will. But we still do not view the actual breaking of the Tablets as a positive occurrence!

Why does Rashi understand the verse as a reference to the breaking of the Tablets? From the perspective of Torah’s literal meaning, other commentators seem more on track. As they explain it, “before the eyes of all Israel” has no independent meaning. It is merely a continuation of the preceding description of the “mighty acts or great sights that Moses did—before the eyes of all Israel”!

These final words come after a long litany of Moses’ feats: 

“He knew G-d face to face,” he was able to converse with G-d whenever he desired. He performed amazing miracles in Egypt. He did “mighty acts,” a reference to receiving the Tablets. He showed “great sights,” a reference to the miracles he did in the desert.

His greatest feat, the one listed at the very end, cannot possibly be his choice to break the Tablets. That would indicate that not only was it a positive thing, but moreover, it was far greater than any of the miracles he did during their forty years in the desert. 

It would be even greater than the fact that he received those very Tablets. Could breaking the Tablets be greater than receiving them? That is unthinkable!

Moses recognized the true purpose of Torah 

The answer lies in Rashi’s earlier comments, where he explains the reason for the breaking of the Tablets. 

When G-d commands Moses to fashion two new Tablets, Rashi states: “This is comparable to a king who went off to a faraway land and left his bride with the maidservants. The immoral behavior of the maidservants tarnished the betrothed’s reputation. Her bridesman arose and tore up her marriage contract, saying, “If the king decides to kill her, I will tell him, ‘she is not yet your wife’”…the king is G-d, the maidservants are the mixed multitudes, the bridesman is Moses, and G-d’s betrothed is Israel.” 

This explanation could help us understand how Moses could be praised for taking the initiative to break the Tablets. 

To preface: Rashi’s parable doesn’t seem to explain why Moses took the liberty to break the Tablets.

These tablets are a microcosm of the entire Torah. They were G-d’s personal handiwork (as opposed to the second tablets which were fashioned by Moses before being engraved by G-d). These tablets were fashioned by G-d Himself.

Now, Moses’ entire identity was the Torah. He, no doubt, had a perfect understanding of Torah. So he was surely able to appreciate the sublime nature of the Torah—especially those first Tablets fashioned by G-d Himself. 

So the question must be asked: true, it is important to defend the Jewish people. But nonetheless, how could Moses destroy the Tablets that were fashioned and given to him by G-d Himself?!

The answer is that the People of Israel always come first.

The entire purpose of the Torah, beginning with that first set of Tablets, was for the sake of the People of Israel. As we read throughout the Torah, “Command the people of Israel,” “Speak to the people of Israel.” It is all about the Jewish people. Therefore, the moment their reputation was tarnished and they were harm’s way, G-d forbid, Moses didn’t hesitate; he didn’t consult with anyone, not even G-d, and he shattered the Tablets—Tablets that had been fashioned by G-d Himself. 

The ultimate purpose of Torah is to uncover the essence of the Jewish people. So, in the event that the result might be the opposite, G-d forbid, and you are forced to choose between Torah and the Jewish people—there is no place for hesitation. Moses immediately proceeded to break the Tablets, the Torah, for the sake of the Jewish people.

Moreover: the breaking of the Tablets was worthwhile even to save just a small portion of the People of Israel, the most immoral among them, those who transgressed with the Golden Calf:

The idea that someone’s good name could be tarnished is only relevant among human beings who make mistakes. G-d knew all along that the real “debauchery” was only among the “maidservants,” the mixed multitude, as He told Moses clearly when He instructed him to go down the mountain and deal with the issue. Moses, too, the true shepherd of Israel, knew that the People of Israel were incapable of fashioning a Golden Calf. The minority who did reach that state did so only under the influence of the “maidservants,” the mixed multitudes.

Thus, the incident posed no danger to the entire People of Israel, G-d forbid, but only to the small minority who sinned with the Golden Calf.

Nonetheless, to defend the small minority who sinned and to ensure that they will be welcomed back into the fold, Moses didn’t hesitate to break the Tablets!

Breaking the Tablets was Moses’ Greatest Act

So, the breaking of the Tablets demonstrates a great virtue in Moses, and in fact, his greatest virtue of all:

After Torah lists the amazing feats of Moses [speaking to G-d face to face, performing the miracles in Egypt, receiving the Torah, and more miracles throughout their sojourn in the desert] the Torah concludes with the greatest virtue of all: For the sake of the Jewish people, he didn’t hesitate to break the Tablets—a greater virtue than all the amazing feats he accomplished, including the fact that he received the very same Torah.

The greatest achievement of Moses, the faithful shepherd of Israel, was that he jeopardized his entire identity—the Torah—to defend a small portion of his flock, the People of Israel, who had fallen into sin. The Torah is Moses’ essence. Yet he didn’t hesitate to break the precious Tablets which were fashioned by G-d Himself, to defend those who had transgressed with the Golden Calf. 

This is the true virtue of a Jewish leader. He recognizes the essential value in his people, which supersedes the Torah, and is therefore ready to break the Tablets for their sake. 

This virtue is greater than all the others. All the other feats were accomplished with talents that were given to him by G-d. As the Alter Rebbe explained, Moses humbly felt that if G-d would have given those talents to someone else, he would have executed the task more ably. But the decision to break the Tablets didn’t come from a G-d-given power. It was his own idea, “and G-d approved of it.”

Breaking the Tablets to defend the People of Israel is the greatest expression of Moses’ love for his fellow Jew. “Moses was a lover of Israel,” the Talmud says. He didn’t hesitate, and immediately shattered the Tablets to protect his people.

Moses did this act “before the eyes of all Israel”—they all witnessed how he broke it—to teach us the importance of loving our fellow. He endeavored to implant within us a true sense of Ahavat Yisrael.

Simchat Torah 5747-1986
(Torat Menachem 5747 vol. 1 pg. 351)

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