"As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain." (Exodus 32:19)
What might cause you to shatter something that is very important to you? How would you react if, on this very Shabbat, your rabbi, noting the failure of most of the congregation to keep the Sabbath (see Veshamru in this week's parashah [31:16-17]) lifted up the scroll and threw it to the ground, ripping the parchment in two? Would you vote to have the rabbi fired? Would you rush to repair the scroll? Would the incident teach you any lasting lessons?
What do traditional midrashim and commentaries say about Moses' action? Some say Moses broke the tablets to save Israel from God's wrath, reasoning: If they [Israel] hadn't yet received the laws, they couldn't be expected to keep them! (see Exodus Rabbah 43:1) Another midrash says that Moses sought to deflect some of God's anger onto himself: "When he realized that there was no future hope for Israel, he linked his own fate with theirs and broke the tablets so that God would have to save them in order to forgive him." (Exodus Rabbah 46:1) When is it appropriate for a person to shield someone else from punishment? Was Moses in this instance serving a higher good?
Other midrashim suggest that Moses shattered the tablets in full sight of the people to show them the terrible consequences of their apostasy-their turning away from God. Have you ever had to resort to drastic measures in order to teach a lesson? Have you yourself ever learned something from such measures?
It's fascinating to note that God does not punish Moses. Some commentaries say God actually approved of the tablets' destruction. In Studies in Shemot, Nehama Leibowitz quotes Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen as follows: "Torah and Faith are the essentials of the Jewish nation. All the sanctities-the Holy Land, Jerusalem, etc.-are secondary and subordinate entities hallowed by virtue of the Torah.... For this reason God approved of Moses' action and said, 'More power to you for having broken them.' By this he [Moses] had demonstrated that the tablets themselves possessed no intrinsic holiness." Sanctuaries and land are not inherently sacred: People and actions are. God cares about how we act.
Finally, tradition tells us that the broken shards of the tablets were kept in the Holy Ark. Perhaps they are the Kabbalists' "broken vessels" that contain parts of the divine, which we must "pick up" and restore. It is not enough to read Torah as if it were a completed document; we must "put it together," assemble and reassemble its pieces, and make it relevant during each moment. Torah is like a computer-age jigsaw puzzle with an infinite number of correct solutions. We can never "finish it" because there will always be another way to put the pieces together.
In the end, then, Moses shattered the tablets-with God's approval-for our sake, so that our minds would never grow numb for lack of challenges and we would never tire of seeking meaning in our tradition, thereby discovering God.
For further reading
Louis Ginzburg, The Legends of the Jews, vol. III (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1968). The shattered tablets are discussed on page 158.
Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, The Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1976). See especially pages 601-617.
Rabbi George Stern is the rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Torah, Upper Nyack, NY, and is now executive director of JSPAN.