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Smashing the Tablets

One of the most shocking images in the Torah happens after the Israelites fashion the golden calf: the Israelites are dancing joyously celebrating their new god of gold. Moses comes down the mountain, sees the dancing, ‘vayichar af Moshe,’ and Moses was enraged, ‘vayashleich miyado et haluchot’ and he hurled the tablets, ‘vayishaber otam tachat hahar’ and he smashed them at the foot of the mountain. It’s stunning on every level: it’s the shattering of the most sacred of objects, the Ten Commandments. It’s the sight of the worst kind of idolatry. It’s an image of humanity totally failing to live up to its potential. And frankly, a question we can ask is, ‘What was Moses thinking?!’ When you think about it, it’s real chutzpah to take the tablets of the ten commandments, written with the very ‘finger’ of God, and smash them. Where did he get permission to do that? Isn’t that act blasphemous in and of itself?
And of course, our ancient sages have wondered the same thing. What did Moses hope to accomplish by smashing the tablets, they ask? The commentator, the Be’er Yitzhak points out that under normal circumstances in the holy Temple, it was forbidden to break even the smallest of vessels, and yet Moses gets away with this? And so we get all kinds of explanations that demonstrate the didactic lessons that Moses hoped to impart to the Israelites through this act of smashing the tablets: Rashi, the great Medieval commentator says that Moses was trying to prove a point: all Israel have become apostates by their idolatry, so he smashes them rather than give them to sinners! The Midrash (Avot deRabbi Natan) likens the idolatrous Israelites to an unfaithful betrothed bride: Moses’ destroying the tablets was like destroying the betrothal contract when the bride proves to be a harlot. That way the groom is saved from disgrace, and the bride is saved from certain death. So his smashing is a way of saying, ‘the deal’s off ’and meanwhile, the Israelites are saved from being accountable to the 10 commandments written on it! Finally, Nachmanides, another medieval scholar point out that Moses simply had an anger problem. His anger in this case simply got the better of him. After all, Moses is the same man who killed the Egyptian. He’s the same man who struck the rock asking for water out of frustration instead of ‘speaking to’ the rock, as God had commanded. And it was an act of passion, and no one, not even God, could blame him for it!
Most of us in this room who are Jewish adults have, hopefully, had an aliyah to the Torah. Remember the first time you were called up to the Torah, perhaps when you were a kid at your bar/t mitzvah? Remember the power of standing at that amazing parchment scroll with the hand-written Hebrew letters? Many of us still have this experience years later every time we’re called up: there’s an uncanny experience of being in the presence of the Torah. It’s an almost other-worldly object, like from another time and place. The parchment has a unique smell. The feather-written letters are so strange, like magical spells written in this raised ink with its ornaments and embellishments. It’s an object with such power and sacredness. When we carry it around we kiss it. When it’s lifted, we all stand, like it’s a king. And we all know that everyone lives in fear of God forbid dropping the Torah—that the penalty is an automatic fast for the whole congregation who is present. It inspires awe and trembling. We have a Hebrew expression: Kal VaChomer, which means all the more so. If the Torah scroll is so powerful and sacred, Kal vachomer, all the more so the tablets of the 10 commandments. Objects can have great impact, they convey Kedushah, sacredness. There’s no way you can hold a Torah scroll and not feel, in our arms, in our kishkes, its power. Kal Vachomer, all the more so, Moses’ act of smashing the tablets of the 10 commandments could not have simply been an angry gesture. His act of deliberately hurling those tablets down and smashing them was either an act of insanity or spiritual depth beyond our ken. Of course, Moses wasn’t crazy. It must be that if ever there was a moment, a reason to smash a sacred object, Moses somehow knew that this was it, and none of us would have either the chutzpah or the insight to understand that indeed, it was acceptable to God to do this. But Moses knew…
The Midrash, in Shemot Rabbah teaches us the following: “Once Moses saw that there was no future hope for Israel in that moment, Moses bound his soul to them and smashed the tablets. Then he said to God, “They have sinned, and I have sinned, for I smashed the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me also….But if you do not forgive them, do not forgive me either but rather ‘m’chaini na misfarcha asher katavta,’ then erase me [too] from your book of life!” So in this midrash, Moses is a great leader par excellence. He knows very well what he’s doing in smashing the tablets, and even in his anger at his people, his instinct is to throw in his lot with theirs. He knows that smashing the tablets is sinful! And yet, he’s willing to do it because it will make him no better than his Israelite people, so God must punish him along with everyone else.
There’s also another well-known midrashic teaching in our tradition: that as soon as Moses hurled the tablets toward the Golden Calf, a miracle occurred. The letters that were carved into the stone separated from stone, flew into the air, and ascended heavenward. So by the time the tablets smashed, they were merely pieces of stone once again. So in a sense, this teaching lets Moses off the hook. He didn’t smash a sacred object because it changed immediately upon his throwing it!
There’s an old story told in the Zen Buddhist tradition about the Dharma Master Dan Xia. On a cold winter night, a big snow storm hit his city and the temple where Dan Xia served as a Monk got snowed in. Cut off from outside traffic, the coal delivery man could not get to the Zen Monastery. Soon it ran out of heating fuel after a few days and everybody was shivering in the cold. The monks could not even cook their meals. Dan Xia began to remove the wooden Buddha Statues from the display and put them into the fireplace. "What are you doing?" the monks were shocked to see that the holy Buddha Statues were being burnt inside the fire place. "You are burning our holy religious artifacts! You are insulting the Buddha!" "Are these statues alive?" asked Master Dan Xia. "Of course not," replied the monks. "They are made of wood." "OK. Then they are just pieces of firewood and therefore can be used as heating fuel," said Master Dan Xia. "Can you pass me another piece of firewood please? I need some warmth." The next day, the snow storm had gone and Dan Xia went into town and brought back some replacement Buddha Statues. After putting them on the displays, he began to kneel down and burn incense sticks to them. "Are you worshiping firewood?" ask the monks who are confused for what he was doing. "No. I am treating these statues as holy artifacts and am honoring the Buddha." replied Dan Xia.
Now I tell this story as a parallel from another tradition. In no way do I mean to suggest that it’s okay in any way to burn Jewish sacred objects for firewood—especially a Torah Scroll, God forbid! But in its very provocative way, this story gets us to think differently about our sacred objects in Judaism: even a Torah scroll, even the Ten Commandments. A Torah scroll is very special indeed: it takes great skill to make it and to do the calligraphy . But it is just animal skin and wood and ink. Nothing more. That power that it has: is it the object itself, or is it something that we invest in it that gives it its power? Kal vachomer, all the more so with the 10 Commandments, which is just a couple of pieces of stone. And according to the midrash, it didn’t even have letters in the end!
Moses smashed the tablets in response to the Golden Calf. We always think that the evil of idolatry is that we’re just worshipping objects. There’s nothing real about a calf of gold. But what is “more real” about the tablets of the 10 Commandments? What’s ‘more real” about the Torah scroll?
In fact, there’s nothing more real about it at all! The 19th century commentator the Meshekh Chochmah says that there is no intrinsic difference between a statue of a calf or any other object in the world! A scroll is just a scroll. A tablet is just a tablet. Moses is just a man. This, says the Meshech Chochmah, was what Moses is really showing us in smashing the tablets! “The moment Israel sinned and transgressed what was written thereon,’ says the Meshekh Chochmah, “they became mere bric a brac devoid of sanctity.” As soon as Moses beheld the Israelites dancing and celebrating with the calf, he realized that if his people could so easily make a statue of a calf into a God, they would just as easily make him in to a God. They could just as easily make the tablets into sacred objects as well. So Moses did the only thing he could do in that moment: he smashed the tablets, in effect saying to the Israelites “I am a man just like yourselves.” …
The Sfat Emet, a rebbe of the last century put it this way: “Moses loved the whole community of Israel even more than he loved the tablets. By this act of [smashing the tablets], Moses in fact redeemed them.” …He saved them, saved them from themselves by smashing the tablets! Let’s take a moment to contemplate this: sometimes in history, the only way to bring us to real sacredness, to bring us to real power and holiness, to bring us to God, is to have us witness the smashing of the very things we thought were the source of sacredness, power, and Godliness!...
On the High Holy Days, I talked about the famous midrash of Rabbi Akiva, the great sage of 2,000 years ago, coming on the ruins of the destroyed Temple in Jersusalem, and when he saw the ruins, he laughed! His colleagues were horrified, just like that Zen master’s colleagues were horrified when he destroyed the statues, and yet, like the Zen master, Rabbi Akiva knew better. Akiva said that now that the Temple is destroyed, the promise of the future redemption of the Jewish people would be able to come about!
Why? What is it in smashed tablets of Torah and in destroyed temples that redeems us, that saves us, that brings us closer to God? The Sfat Emet says it well. He says, “Only as the light of Torah is engraved and incised on the hearts of Israel are the letters incised on the tablets as well. The real writing is on the heart of which scripture says [in the book of Proverbs 3:3] “write them upon the tablet of your heart.” That is why the letters flew off when Israel sinned.
Where are the 10 Commandments written? They were never on a piece of stone. They are in our hearts! Where is the entire Torah really located? Not on a piece of animal parchment and ink. The entire Torah lives in our hearts—yours and mine! It’s all in there. Already. The Ten Commandments were just a reminder of what we already know in our deepest heart of hearts. The same thing goes for the Torah! The Temple in Jerusalem was never literally “God’s house.” But I’ll bet if you had been able to visit that Temple before it was destroyed 2,000 years ago, you would be struck by the power of that place, it’s sense of the sacred, the palpable feeling of God’s presence there. But then again, it’s just a building. It’s a physical reminder of the greater Truth, that YOU are God’s house.
Moses did us the greatest favor in the world by smashing those tablets. He showed us that the power we see in things is just a projection of what we ARE in our deepest and Truest sense. The Golden Calf was such a sin because the people believed that the calf was really a god, that it literally had power. And so long as we think that True power and sacredness and Godliness comes from “out there,” we will always be confused, we’ll always be enslaved. The real source of Godliness and holiness comes from” in here,” on the fleshy tablets of the heart. The Ten Commandments and the Torah Scroll is sacred because they show us how to uncover that Sacredness, the Power, that Godliness that lives within!
We live in an era where economic challenges confront us all. Many ‘golden calves’ are being destroyed as greedy schemes are exposed, and hopes and dreams for redemption through material abundance are dashed . Idols of wealth are being dismantled, tablets of all kinds of agreements and promises are getting smashed. Perhaps this moment in history is yet another moment like that of Moses smashing the tablets, like that Temple getting destroyed. (Let’s hope, of course, that it won’t be that extreme!) So before we despair, let’s look again at what we truly afraid of losing. Material things are just material things. Their True value, their True Power comes not from their materiality but from us. If our modern day idols are the objects we have pursued for comfort and security: where is the True source of that comfort and security? It’s in our very hearts. It was never anywhere else. This is very good news! Our rabbis tell us: you know what God said to Moses when he smashed those tablets? Yashar Koach! “More power to you for having broken them” (Meshech Chochmah). And after Moses carved the replacement tablets, God instructed him to place the broken tablets by the new ones in the Ark of the Covenant, as an eternal reminder that those commandments—that Torah, that wisdom-- are not made for stone, but are written on our hearts. May we be blessed to discover this great Truth in our lifetimes. May the Torah guide each of us to discover that all the blessings we crave in life live in us already. And may we transform the world to a place of abundant blessing by opening to our very own hearts.


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