Parshat Ki Tisa: Broken Tablets

Rabbanit Bili Rebenstein (Pizam) is the Rosh Beit Midrash of the Israeli Programs at OTS’s Midreshet Lindenbaum

admin ajax 3 1“And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moshe’s anger waxed hot, and he cast the Tablets out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount.” (Shemot 32:19)

The breaking of the Tablets was a formidable action, unfathomable actually.  How was it possible for Moshe to break the Tablets that “were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God” (ibid.16)?!  Furthermore, Moshe is described as burning hot with temper, as if he had lost good reason.  Surely such a description is hardly compatible with the character of Moshe?

Almost all the Torah exegetes took on the challenge of explaining this bewildering deed. One might even say that the number of interpretations offered is as great as the number of commentators. Some explain that Moshe did, indeed, act out of great anger, albeit a justified and appropriate one.  Other exegetes say that the breaking of the Tablets was done by Divine order, and was not a spontaneous reaction by Moshe.

The Midrash Avot deRabi Nathan suggests that by breaking the Tablets, Moshe retroactively annulled the oath taken by the people of Israel at Sinai. In so doing, he turned their idolatrous action into a sin committed unknowingly (be’shogeg) rather than a willful one (be’mezid). According to this interpretation of events, Moshe performed a “deed of deliverance”, as it were, saving the People of Israel from an even greater iniquity. In keeping with this idea, one might also say that the breaking of the Tablets was done to shock the people of Israel into doing Teshuvah. 

Another approach can be found in the Talmud Yerushalmi, and in the somewhat cynical manner in which the breaking of the Tablets is described:

“When Israel sinned in that way, the Holy One wanted to seize them from Moshe’s hand, but Moshe’s hand had the better of it and seized them from Him.”  (Talmud Yerushalmi, Venice edition, Tractate Ta’anit, Chapter 4, p. 68, column 3)

The Midrash above describes a struggle between two great powers: Moshe and God Almighty Himself. God wishes to take back the Tablets to Heaven, and yet Moshe uses all of strength in order to keep the Tablets on earth.

In accordance with the words of the Talmud Yerushalmi, let me suggest the following. In the midst of the great struggle between God Almighty and Moshe, the Tablets fell from the hands of both and broke. This interpretation of events renders the breaking of the Tablets an unwilful act on the part of Moshe, no more than an accident. Moreover, it wasn’t only Moshe who was responsible for the terrible mishap. God Himself bears the responsibility along with him!

Theologically, the above description of the events at Sinai is a difficult one; so much so, that it would be misguided to take it at face value. Rather, we must say that by presenting the breaking of the Tablets as an accident, the Talmud wishes to highlight the lack of intentionality in the situation at large, and the fact that neither party desired the tragic outcome. By inserting God Himself into this tragic scene, the Talmud Yerushalmi wishes to express the pain of the Shechinah at this terrible misfortune. 

It is also possible that the Talmud Yerushalmi wishes to describe the sin itself.  Seemingly, the punishment, which is the breaking of the Tablets, is a mirror image of the sin – the making of the golden calf. According to the Kabbalah, the sin, too, was an unintentional action; an awful moment of unpredictable waywardness; an impulsive action with devastating consequences.  But not, God forfend, a premeditated deed.  Not a willful act. 

The Midrash in the Talmud Yerushalmi goes on to paint another picture still:

“Rebbi Ezra in the name of Rebbi Jehudah ben Rebbi Simon: The Tablets were a load of forty seah [unit of dry measure] but the writing [the letters] carried them. When the writing flew off, they were too heavy for Moshe’s hands. They fell, and broke.”

According to this explanation as well, the breaking of the Tablets was not a proactive action on the part of Moshe; rather, it resulted from his inability to carry the weight of the stones from which the spirit [the letters] had been taken. But this description conveys something deeper. The Midrash makes reference to both the physical stones as well as to the written inscription on the stones, and tells us that the letters, i.e. the spirit etched into the stone, flew off and separated from the physical matter. 

The Tablets are physical matter which carry the spirit. As such, they may very well be a representation of the people of Israel. The people of Israel, like all humans, are made of physical matter. However, the human material called Israel is able to transcend beyond the physical by means of the spirit. It can be elevated. It can defeat its very own physicalness, as it were.

When we are infused with spirit, we become uplifted; we soar upwards. But when the physical matter pulls downwards, the letters fly off into the air; the spirit becomes disconnected from the physical material and, inevitably, the physical matter comes crashing down and breaks into a million pieces. 

Interestingly, this description, is, in many respects, quite the opposite of the traditional explanations given for the breaking of the Tablets. According to the Yerushalmi, Moshe did not break the Tablets; rather, the Tablets fell from his hands. Moreover, Moshe was not angry; he was broken. Just like the Tablets. 

Ostensibly, the fact that the letters flew upwards seems to suggest that they no longer belong to us because we failed. We have been left, as it were, with our physical matter only, since we did not let the spirit raise us beyond the physical realm.

And yet, as I see it, Moshe’s insistence on holding onto the broken Tablets tells a story of its own. It shows us that despite all, we don’t let go. We cling tightly to the Tablets, to the broken physical matter. And it is precisely in this situation that the spirit suddenly reveals itself again. The Talmud in the tractate of Bava Batra tells us that the broken Tablets were not abandoned in the sands of the desert, but were placed in the Holy Ark for preservation:

“…both the second Tablets and the broken pieces of the first set of Tablets were placed in the Ark.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra 14b)

There is something quite powerful in the preservation of the shattered Tablets. It almost seems like a refusal to accept the decree; a desperate attempt to keep holding onto the Covenant.  Even if the letters have flown off, even if God Himself has severed the knot, and has left the alliance, we continue to hold on tightly.  We refuse to let go. 

This insistence ultimately led to a renewed Covenant:

“And the Lord said unto Moshe: ‘Hew thee two tablets of stone like unto the first; and I will write upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which thou didst break.” (Shemot 24:1)

In recent months, we have found ourselves broken and shattered time and time again. The letters have flown away, and it sometimes seems that the earth wishes to swallow up the physical matter as well. The story of the breaking of the Tablets teaches us of the strength that exists in that which is broken, the resilience in times of crisis, the power of holding on against all odds. Today, as in the times the Israelites wandered through the desert, we have discovered that the spirit is often found in times when things are most broken; it rises up from the very cracks of the broken material. We, like our forefathers, refuse to let go; we are determined not to give up. Perhaps, we are already witness to how, from the depth of the crisis, new Tablets are being written. 


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