This week's parashah, Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), contains a story with which most of us are familiar ― the breaking of the first set of tablets by Moses when he sees the people dancing around the golden calf. In a fit of rage, Moses hurls to the ground the tablets that God had given him on top of the mountain. He burns the golden calf and grinds it into powder, mixes the powder with water, and makes the people drink it. Clearly this is not one of Moses' better moments. And after all the dust has settled, we are left to wonder about what happened to the broken pieces of the tablets of the Covenant (at least I am). They are never again mentioned in the Torah. We hear about them only in midrashim.
One midrash, using a proof text from Ecclesiastes 3:1, suggests that Moses literally cast away the stones of the broken tablets: "To every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born and a time to die...a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones." This midrash is based on the awareness that the verb used in Ecclesiastes for "cast away" is identical to the verb used in Ki Tisato describe Moses' casting the tablets to the ground. (Exodus Rabbah 46:2) However, because the rabbis were uncomfortable with this conclusion, they completed the midrash by suggesting that the broken pieces not only had value in themselves, they were also made of sapphires. God gave those broken chips of the tablets to Moses for safekeeping.
Building on this idea, "Rabbi Judah bar Ilai taught that two arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness ― one in which the Torah was kept and one in which the tablets broken by Moses were kept. The one in which the Torah was placed was kept in the Tent of Meeting; the other, containing the broken tablets, would come and go with them." (Sefer Ha-Aggadah, p. 89, from Talmud Yerusalmi, Shekalim 1:1)
A third midrash states that the broken pieces of the tablets and the whole second set of tablets were placed side by side in one ark, not two. And from this the rabbis inferred a teaching about the importance of respecting the elderly: "Take care to respect an old man who, through [the] unavoidable circumstances [of aging], has forgotten what he once knew." (Talmud, Menachot 99a; also Berachot 8b)
Thus it is clear that the rabbis were unable to simply forget about the sh'vurei luchot, the "broken tablets," of the Covenant. They insisted on giving the broken pieces not only value but also importance. Somehow they were going to include them as part of the Torah tradition, which, when you think about it, makes a lot of sense because the Torah is more than an object, whether it is made of stone or of parchment. For the rabbis, as it is for us, Torah was the living expression of the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people. And as in all relationships, there are pieces that, even though they are not whole, cannot simply be left behind. Those broken pieces are also part of our inheritance: They go where we go.
Questions for Discussion
What is broken in your life that you carry with you?
How does what is (or was) broken help make you whole?
What do you think you must do to find sh'leimoot (completeness) in order to help yourself become more psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually whole?
Rabbi Barnett J. Brickner is the rabbi of Temple Israel in Alameda, CA.
When Parashat Ki Tisa begins, God has nearly completed the divine instruction to Moses, and the people are awaiting Moses' descent from Mount Sinai with great impatience. In a moment of weakness, they surrender to their need for a visible, concrete god and fashion the golden calf. Just prior to these events, God speaks to Moses about God's plans for building the Tabernacle. God then reminds the Israelites of the commandment to observe Shabbat even when they are engaged in the holy work of constructing the Tabernacle. (Exodus 31:12-17) Shem MiShmuel comments that the sanctuary will be a dwelling place of the Holy Presence, "but only if you shall keep My Sabbaths." This implies that if the Israelites do not keep Shabbat, their work will have been in vain.
We are also told that the violation of Shabbat is punishable by the death penalty. (Exodus 31:14) But how are we to understand this statement when we know that the law explicitly states that the saving of a human life takes precedence over Shabbat? The Rabbi of Miedzieboz finds the answer to this question in the second half of verse 14, which says, "Whoever does work on it [Shabbat], that person shall be cut off from among his kin." That is, when a Jew willfully profanes the Sabbath, his or her soul is cut off from its very roots, and it is as if the person has been put to death. Thus the Rabbi of Miedzieboz deduces that the law concerning the precedence of human life over Shabbat is not applicable. Furthermore, we are instructed to continue this observance "throughout the ages as a covenant for all time." (Exodus 31:16)
Shabbat observance, then, is clearly not optional: "It shall be a sign for all time between me and the people of Israel. For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed." (Exodus 31:17) Shabbat is a living expression of God's commitment to us. As Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf recently commented at a 1999 UAHC Biennial workshop on how to enrich our personal Sabbath experience, "Shabbat is not for us. It is for God!" This does not mean that a strict halachic observance is more authentic (read "better") or even desired. Rather, it suggests that our emphasis should be on making a commitment to some form of observance that is constant, deep, and God-centered.
During a recent pulpit exchange, a local conservative rabbi praised the Reform Movement for the kavanah, "intent," that accompanies choice in personal observance. But he also reminded our congregation of the merits of keva, "fixed observance." What does it mean when we choose to pass on Shabbat because there is something else we would rather do? What do we lose when we fail to understand when to stop building in order to join with God in the sanctification of time? Do we put our souls at risk when we ignore the commandment "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy"? (Exodus 20:8)
As the Reform Movement seeks to delineate its essential principles of belief and practice, perhaps we need to ask ourselves what prevents us from making a commitment to the very experience that is intended to be a taste of the World to Come.
For Further Reading:
Shabbat Reader: Universe of Cosmic Joy , Dov Peretz Elkins, editor (New York: UAHC Press), 1998
Duties of the Soul: The Role of Commandments in Liberal Judaism , Niles E. Goldstein and Peter S. Knobel, editors (New York: UAHC Press), 1999
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