The Tablets We Carry: Guides in the Pursuit of Justice

March 14, 2017Shira Zemel

We who work at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism are constantly thinking about our Jewish mandate to do justice. As I remind the L’Taken students each week, our people have been thinking about a just society since Abraham pleaded on behalf of the righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah. Our tradition commands us to “plead for the orphan, the stranger, the widow,” to “do justice,” to “love the stranger” – in these imperatives we find our mandate.

I had a great literature professor in college who reminded us not to ignore an author’s repeated use of the same literary technique or theme. “Pay attention to the patterns,” she told us, “the mystery – and the genius lie in the patterns.” As I read this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, I bring my professor with me. Ki Tisa reminds us that our social justice mandate lies in more than direct (and conveniently quotable) commandments to pursue justice; our mandate lies embedded in the patterns of our story.

As the portion begins, we find Moses on Mt. Sinai receiving the tablets containing the Ten Commandments from God: “When God finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18).

Just a verse later, we learn that down below, the Israelites have become impatient with Moses and, with Aaron, build the golden calf. Thus, begins a roller coaster: back on top of the mountain, God speaks to Moses: “Hurry, down, for your people…have acted basely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them. They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it” Thus, Moses returned to his people with the tablets God had written.

Moses, reaching the bottom, “sees the calf and the dancing and becomes enraged; and he hurl[s] the tablets from his hand and shatter[s] them at the foot of the mountain” (32: 19).

In this narrative sequence lies a pattern that continually underscores our people’s unfolding story: we catch mere glimpses of divine perfection, of the utterly sacred, of complete wholeness, total redemption, because we live in a world where there is always somewhere a golden calf lurking, enticing, beckoning. 

Our story begins with this same narrative. In eight verses, we go from paradise in the Garden of Eden to fratricide. The Garden lasts less than one generation because there is always a golden calf – temptation, fruit from a tree we must not eat.

It is only atop the mountain in the rarefied air of Moses and God that the holy tablets of the very hand of God could exist. In the real world at the foot of the mountain, such total holiness cannot endure. In Faith Finding Meaning: A Theology of Judaism, Byron Sherwin writes:

“The first set of tablets, written by God…represented a perfected and redeemed world…the Torah as it really is…. In this view, Moses did not break the tablets out of anger; he broke them from his realization…that redemption could not yet come, that the world remained sinful, corrupt and unredeemed. Moses realized that the perfect Torah…the Torah written by the hand of God, had no place in such a world. It could not operate in the world as it is.”

Later in Ki Tisa, we receive a second set of tablets, this time carved by Moses. Of these tablets, Sherwin writes: “The first set was written by God, the second by a human being. The first…for a redeemed world. The second is a remolded Torah, shaped for an unredeemed world…in our world of falsehood, deception, and sin, of evil and absurdity, the Torah of absolute truth, perfection…could not endure, nor could be endured by the world.”

It is these tablets – this Torah – that Israel comes to possess. This Torah banishes us from the Garden, watches brother kill brother, and allows slavery at the hands of an evil Pharaoh. Sherwin writes: “the Torah that we have does not address a perfect world…it addresses both the hopeful and the ugly side of human nature and experience…it carries God’s world, God’s will, God’s commandments for a messy world, not for a messianic world. As the Talmud reminds us, the Torah is given to human beings and not to angels.”

Our tablets remind us that it is our job to do God’s work here on earth. No one is going to do it for us. Our work is to bring these tablets with us always – as a guidebook to overcome the golden calves in our lives. Although we know the world is far from redeemed, and we didn’t inherit the tablets carved by the hand of God – the ones we did inherit nonetheless include glimpses of the divine, redeemed world: the Garden, the miracle at the Sea, the Promised Land. We know the world as it is, and we know the world as it could be.

This is the world we work toward every day with our tablets as our guide.

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