"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.
"And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with God. Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses' face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him." (Exodus 34:29-30)
Commentators have analyzed the origin of these rays, variously called "beams of splendor," "divine rays of glory," or incorrectly "horns." The Sages said they came into existence when God shielded Moses with his hand as Moses waited in the cleft of the rock for God's Presence to pass by. R. Judah ben Nachman said in the name of R. Simeon ben Lakish that a little ink was left on the pen with which Moses had written, and when he passed this pen through his hair, the beams of splendor appeared. In Tosefot it is said that God granted Moses these brilliant rays after the incident of the golden calf to show the Israelites that no one resembled Moses and that they had erred in seeking a substitute for him.
It seems clear that the rays originated somehow during Moses' encounter with God. Perhaps they also resulted from Moses' newfound self-confidence as a leader. After all, he overcame a physical disability, learned to stop running from responsibility, led his people to freedom, spoke to God, and received the Law. Surely he was burning with excitement and pride as he came down from the mountain the second time.
Similar examples of such rays or beams are found in Navajo rock painting, Buddhist sculptures, Indian paintings, depictions of the birth of Venus, etc. (Michelangelo's Moses in Rome shows Moses with horns rather than rays.) The halos that adorn paintings of Christian religious figures are another example of such rays. These halos symbolize the radiation of inner light flowing outward through the purified, consecrated personality. Straight radiating lines in a halo represent the power of the sun or soul.
Some say the soul is a radiant body of light or form of radiance and that an aura is the light of the soul shining through. Thus the rays that emanated from Moses might have been his aura. Auras are said to increase in size and brilliance when the activity of the soul is intensified, perhaps during prayer or meditation or in moments of deep spiritual inspiration.
When a person is excited or proud about something, people say his or her face shines. (Plaut, p. 665) Perhaps this is caused by the soul shining through-as did Moses' at this moment in time.
Questions For Discussion
Moses had a "peak experience." Describe any experiences you have had that made you feel radiant.
What do you think happened to Moses' radiance? How long did it last? How long could the people see it? How long was it so strong that he had to cover his face with a veil? What do you do to maintain your state of exultation?
Which interpretation of the beams of glory do you prefer? Why?
Why didn't Moses have a radiant face when he came down from the mountain the first time?
Only some people can see auras. Why could all the Israelites see the radiance of Moses' face?
Do you believe in auras? Have you ever seen one? Might auras be caused by some form of energy field that exists around us and all natural objects?
For further reading
The Midrash Rabbah: Exodus Leviticus. London: The Soncino Press, 1977.
Kunz, Dora van Gelder. The Personal Aura. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1991.
Tansley, David V. Subtle Body: Essence and Shadow. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1977.
At the time of this writing in 1998, Audrey Friedman Marcus was the executive vice president of A.R.E. Publishing, Inc. She is the author and editor of many teacher and student publications for Jewish schools.
Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520