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Smashing the Tablets - The Paradox of Intellectual Surrender

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Printed from JewishBellingham.com Section I: At the beginning of this week’s parshah, Moshe begins his descent from Mt. Sinai. After a marathon session of 40 days of fasting and studying one-on-one with G-d, Moshe carried with him the holiest inanimate objects ever in existence— two sapphire cubes, hewn by HaShem Himself, engraved with the Divine Decalogue in miraculous script. These tablets were the ultimate expression of the new Divine order: Bringing heaven down to earth. Meanwhile, down at the foot of the mountain, a large group of Jews were dancing hysterically around an animated gold sculpture, a calf. Unconvinced that Moshe would return alive, they had decided to create a new leader, a choice inevitably leading to idol-worship and other grave sins. And then, witnessing the debasement of HaShem’s nation, Moshe did the unthinkable. Lifting those sacred stones, he smashed them against the rocky mountainside.  Let’s read the Torah’s description of this incident: (Text #1, Texts can be found below). Moshe’s thoughts at that moment are hard to fathom. Coming from the heights of spirituality, it was more than a slap in the face to see his holy nation so disgracing itself. Nonetheless, his reaction is very puzzling. After spending so much time in appreciation of the spirituality absorbed within these tablets, to take the sacred luchot and destroy them Indeed, it must have been a terrible shock to see the nation he had trusted and led, involved in idolatry in his absence. But for Moshe, leader of the Jews through the most difficult of times, the one with the greatest appreciation for these luchot—to then hurl them callously to the ground in anger? And even if he felt that the Jews no longer deserved these luchot—was there no other way other than smashing them? In fact, Rabeinu Bachayei, suggests that Moshe broke the luchot  to avoid having to present them to a nation which had proven itself unworthy of them. But he is still left with a question. (Text #2). Some Midrashic sources provide different perspectives for Moshe’s reasoning. (Text #3). According to this opinion, Moshe did not want the Jews to receive the Ten Commandments, for it would make their deed look worse in the eyes of the prosecuting angels. If it could be argued that the Jews were unaware that their deeds would void their “betrothal” to the One Above, it would mitigate the severity of their sin. Rabbi Natan, explains that it was really blank sapphire tablets that Moshe destroyed. (Text #4). While the reasons brought by these Midrashic sources are compelling, they still leave us with the basic question: Why did Moshe have to break them? Was there no other method available? (Text #5). In truth, we see that not only did HaShem uphold Moshe’s logic for breaking the luchot—He even praised him for doing it! (Text #6a-b). Perhaps we can agree that the Jews did not deserve to have the luchot. But there are a number of ways to preserve the sanctity of the luchot without presenting them to the Jews. He could have returned them to HaShem, or buried them beneath Mt. Sinai. So why did Moshe deserve praise specifically for breaking the luchot? Not commendation merely for keeping the luchot away from the undeserving, but kudos for finding no better way than smashing the holy tablets? In answer to this question, the Midrash tells us that actually, Moshe himself felt bad about breaking the tablets. (Text #7). Had Moshe preserved the original set of luchot, then that would have been the only set the Jews would’ve received, missing out on all those bonuses. Imagine breaking your cell phone. It’s really upsetting, even though you’re relieved that your contacts are all on your SIM card. You call your insurance policy to request a replacement phone. The representative on the phone tells you he has bad news and good news. The bad news? The model you had was discontinued. The good news? The new model they’re going to provide you is much better than the one you had before… Still, why couldn’t HaShem have given us all of those “bonuses” with the original set of luchot to begin with?  So we’re back to our question—why did Moshe have to break the luchot? Why couldn’t HaShem provide the Halachot, Midrash and Aggadah in the first set? Section II: When Moshe shattered the sapphire cubes of the luchot, he was not merely shattering the stones; he shattered the very hearts of the Jewish people. Through breaking the tablets, Moshe was able to affect a transformation in the Jewish People’s relationship to the Torah—enabling them to handle a paradox in the manner in which we study HaShem’s wisdom. (Text #8). HaShem gave the Torah in order that it should be fathomed and grasped by the human mind.  And these are the two aspects of Torah: while being an expression of HaShem’s infinite wisdom, it is presented to us in order to be contained and acted upon by our finite minds. This is the age-old math question: Which is greater: the distance between 1 and infinity, or the distance between 250 billion and infinity? The answer—they are the same. Infinity is vast beyond all comprehension of numbers. But how is it in fact possible for us limited human beings capable of appreciating HaShem’s infinite and incredible wisdom? So we are given two cardinal ingredients to be able to grasp HaShem’s supernal wisdom. We are expected to study Torah with both of these aspects in mind. A) Study: HaShem wants us to use out all of our intellectual capabilities to achieve deeper understanding and meaning. It was for our cognitive faculties that HaShem contracted His wisdom. B) Bitul- Nullification: This second vital ingredient is harder to define. In order to tap into the infinite aspect of Torah, it’s very essence, the only way to do this is to allow ourselves to fade out of the picture, revealing our own true essence—infinite G-dliness. This activity is the humbling recognition that I, the finite, cannot grasp the infinite, no matter how hard I may try. This humbling provides the space for your G-dly essence to shine forth. Only then can you tap into the wisdom of the infinite G-d. As the great Talmudic sage used to pray: (Text #9). This second ingredient of bitul was unfortunately in short supply at the time of the Golden Calf incident. Still reeling from the exhilarating exodus, the unbelievable miracles, and the revelations of Matan Torah, the Jews felt like they were on top of the world. In the words of the holiday prayers: (Text #10). Even singing this song today brings us some of the elation and pride of knowing our true, elite and prestigious purpose. At that moment, under those circumstances, it was next to impossible to allow themselves to negate themselves and fade from the picture. Their joy and pride, while wonderful and inspirational, made it extremely difficult to tap into the bitul they would need to properly study Torah. By that point, they felt almost supermen-like. They had outlasted Egypt and they had personally seen and heard HaShem Himself. Admitting that they were themselves finite was an almost ludicrous thought. Hence, when Moshe didn’t return on time according to their calculations, the Jews came up with their own solution. Following the twisting and convincing roads of human logic, they soon found themselves worshipping the Golden Calf. And that’s why Moshe shattered the luchot at their feet. Through that act the Jewish nation was compelled to admit that they had made a grave error. They were forced to see that their logic was so limited, that their intellect was so finite that it could lead them to act in total opposition to all of the truths they had just experienced. It could convince them it was right to serve an idol. Seeing the pieces of the luchot, they were forced to realize that they had stepped on and disgraced the Torah they had just received.  It was this humbling thought that inevitably restored their power of bitul. The Jews were reminded not to take themselves so seriously, but to take seriously the mission HaShem had assigned to them. They were now ready to take on a whole new level of devotion. Now they were able to receive the second set of luchot. A greater set, with more Torah—more Halachah, more Aggadah than before. For now they were capable of handling it, studying it, and spreading it; because they had experienced humility. They were now a thousand times more subservient and submissive to HaShem than they were by the first luchot. Hence, Moshe was in fact acting out of his love for them.  He wanted the Jews to lose their ego so they could properly study HaShem’s Torah and serve Him as true servants. This is the reason Moshe was praised for breaking the luchot! For it was the most effective way of giving over the message, bringing them to a true level of bitul, and enabling them to reach a higher level in Torah itself. Section III: With the bitul caused by the shattering of the luchot, the Jews surely now had the second ingredient necessary to be able to study the Torah. But how can it coexist with the first? How can we recognize our limited cognition, take ourselves out of the picture—while at the same time using our intelligence to grasp the Torah HaShem condensed for us? In deference to this paradox, we learn an interesting detail about the shattered luchot. (Text #11). The Aron had an unduplicated quality: bridging the ultimate physical paradox. It was physically present in the Holy of Holies, yet took up no space. (Text #12a-b). Such a concept can only be made possible by an infinite G-d. The paradox inherent in an infinite Creator is best summed up by the philosophical question posed: Can HaShem create a rock too heavy for Him to lift? The answer—He can. But then He can lift it anyhow. (Text #13). Within each of us, we have the level of the Aron, the capability of containing contradictions. (Text #14a-b). The uniqueness of the yechidah is its unity with its source expressed in the translation of “yechidah”—unison. Because it is this level of the soul that is in complete unison with HaShem- its Creator, the ultimate paradox- the yechidah allows the Jew containing it to also bridge opposites. It is this soul aspect which makes us capable of study both by exercising our reasoning and acknowledging our nothingness, using existing entities and being nullified at the same time. This is what allows us to hold both the broken and complete luchotin our personal Aron. By living the paradox of the Aron in our Torah study, we justify once again the shattering of the luchot, and HaShem’s praise to Moshe for doing it, “Yasher Kochacha SheShibarta.” This is the lesson for each and every one of us. We must recognize the treasure we have as HaShem’s chosen nation, the treasure known as the Torah. We must acknowledge that this Torah is HaShem’s wisdom, and is thus infinite. Yet, in HaShem’s unbounded kindness and humility, He allows our finite minds to comprehend and study this Torah. Hence, we should grab the opportunity to study this phenomenal gift of Torah, thus appreciating that HaShem has allowed us to connect with His infinite wisdom, through this we will be humbled before Him. Faith vs. Trust: There is another lesson we can take from all of this. Our power of handling opposites comes into play again with another common Jewish paradox: faith and trust. Faith “emunah”: is the belief that what seems bad is in essence good—for all that is from HaShem is good. (Text #15) Trust  “Bitachon”: on the other hand, is a conviction that there will be revealed good, in the literal sense of the word. (Text #16), We are somehow expected to have both simultaneously. Although bitachon is in relation to the future while emunah is focused on the past, maintaining both perspectives at once seems difficult for a person, almost impossible. It is again with the power of the yechidah that we are able to contain both of these simultaneously. We can know that all of our tribulations were a hidden good, we can appreciate our upsetting experiences as life lessons, while being sure that all future events will be an obvious good. With a true sense of emunah and bitachon, a person can be constantly happy, and confidently optimistic, despite a difficult past. By realizing that we as Jews can handle opposites (through tapping into our essence), we will not be deterred or confused when faced with seemingly opposing beliefs. And that is the true definition of a Jew.  Texts 1) Source: Shemot (Exodus) 32:1-9;15-19 When the people saw that Moshe was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aharon, and they said to him, “Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moshe, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don’t know what has become of him.” Aharon said to them, “Remove the golden earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.” And all the people stripped themselves of the golden earrings that were on their ears and brought them to Aharon. He took it from their hands, fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into a molten calf, upon which they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!” When Aharon saw this, he built an altar in front of it, and Aharon proclaimed and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to HaShem.” On the next day they arose early, offered up burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and they got up to make merry. And HaShem said to Moshe, “Go, descend, for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly. They have quickly turned away from the path that I have commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf! And they have prostrated themselves before it, slaughtered sacrifices to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt.’” And HaShem said to Moshe, “I have seen this people and—behold!—they are a stiff-necked people.” Now Moshe turned and went down from the mountain bearing the two Tablets of the Testimony in his hand, tablets inscribed from both their sides; on one side and on the other side they were inscribed. Now the tablets were G‑d’s work, and the inscription was G‑d’s inscription, engraved on the tablets. When Yehoshua heard the voice of the people in their shouting, he said to Moshe, “There is a voice of battle in the camp!” But Moshe said, “It is neither a voice shouting victory, nor a voice shouting defeat; a voice of blasphemy I hear.” When he drew closer to the camp and saw the calf and the dances, Moshe’s anger was kindled, and he flung the tablets from his hands, shattering them at the foot of the mountain. 2) Source: Rabeinu Bachayei Shemot 32:16 It is a wonder concerning Moshe, trusted personal servant of HaShem. How did he have the brazenness to break the Luchot which were Michtav Elokim, the writing of HaShem? If the Jewish people sinned and were not worthy of the Torah, he should have returned the Torah to its Host and asked of HaShem what should be done with it. If a king of flesh and blood sends his sealed letter through the hand of his trusted personal servant to the royal ministers, and they do not want to take it, it is appropriate for the faithful servant to return it to the king, and not to conduct himself in a disgraceful manner and tear it up. 3) Source: Midrash Shemot Rabah 43:1 What did Moshe do? He took the Luchot from the hand of the Holy One, blessed be He, in order to calm His anger. To what is this compared? To a king who sent someone to betroth a woman through a middleman. She went and acted inappropriately with another man. The middleman, who was innocent, what did he do? He took the ketubah which the king gave him to betroth her and tore it. His intention being that it is better she is judged as an unmarried woman than a woman who is married. What Moshe did was the same. When the Jewish people sinned, he took the Luchot and broke them, so as to say that if they would have seen their punishment, they would have not sinned. 4) Source: Midrash Avot DeRabi Natan chapter 2 He looked at them and saw that the words had flown out of them. He said, “How can I give the Jewish people the Luchot with no substance? Rather, I will grab them and break them.” 5) Source: Moshav Zekeinim on Shemot 32:19 He should have buried them under the mountain in a respectful manner. One cannot say that just because the letters flew out, the holiness therefore completely left them. As the Talmud states (in chapter “Kol Kitvei”—Tractate Shabbat 115b, where it discusses when the laws of Shabbat are overridden to save holy writings): A Sefer Torah which was erased, if it does not have 85 letters it is not saved from a fire on Shabbat. However, even that law is only true in regards to desecrating the Shabbat in order to save the Torah from the fire; but it is certainly forbidden to act with it in a disgraceful manner. The Talmud states in Tractate Megilah (26b): A Sefer Torah which is worn out needs burial. 6a) Source: Talmud Tractate Shabbat 87a We have learned: Three things Moshe did of his own accord and HaShem agreed to his judgment… He broke the Luchot. What was his reasoning? He said, “The Passover Offering which is only one of the 613 mitzvot, the Torah says, ‘any strange person (idol worshiper) should not eat from it;’ the Luchot contain the entire Torah and the Jewish people are transgressors, how much more so [that it should not be given to them]!” How do we know that HaShem agreed with his judgment? For it is written, “(The first Luchot) which you have broken” (Shemot 34:1), and Reish Lakish said that the word “asher” (which) can be juxtaposed to mean “Yasher Kochacha (thank you) for having broken it.” 6b) Source: Rashi ibid Asher: consent; He consented and praised him for breaking them. 7) Source: Midrash Shemot Rabah 46:1 Moshe began to be pained over the breaking of the Luchot. HaShem said to him, “Do not be pained over the first Luchot, for they were only the Ten Commandments. The second Luchot I will give to you, will be accompanied by Halachot (laws), Midrash (extrapolations) and Agadah (homily).” 8) Source: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, Chapter 4 The Holy One, blessed be He, is called “Ein Sof” (Infinite), and “His greatness can never be fathomed,” and “No thought can at all apprehend him,” and His will and His wisdom are equally [infinite and unfathomable], as it is written, “There is no searching of His understanding”; and it is also written, “When you will search [to understand] G‑d, will you find?”; and it is further written, “For My thoughts are not like your thoughts,” says G‑d to man. Concerning this disparity between human intelligence and Divine wisdom, our Sages have said, “Where you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility.” G‑d compressed His will and wisdom in the 613 commandments of the Torah and in their laws, and in the lettercombinations of Scripture (Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim) and G‑d’s will and wisdom are also contained in the exposition of these verses found in the Agadot and Midrashim of our Sages, of blessed memory. G‑d “compressed” His will and wisdom in all of these, so that each soul […] will be able to grasp them with its intellect, and in order that it fulfill them, in action, speech and thought; thereby clothing itself with all of its ten faculties in these three garments. 9) Source: Talmud Tractate Berachot 17a Mar the son of Ravina would conclude his prayer with the following, “My G‑d, protect my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit. To those who curse me may my heart be silent, and my soul should be to everyone like dust. Open my heart in the understanding of your Torah…” 10) Source: Siddur, Yom Tov Prayers You have chosen us from all the nations! You have loved us and found favor in us! You have raised us above all the people of different languages and have sanctified us with your mitzvot! You have brought us close to Your service, and Your great and holy name has been called upon us! 11) Source: Talmud Tractate Bava Batra 14b Rav Huna said… the [full] Luchot and the broken Luchot lay in the Aron (Holy Ark). 12a) Source: Talmud Tractate Yoma 21a Rabbi Levi said: We have a tradition from our ancestors, that the place of the Aron occupied no physical space. 12b) Source: Rashi ibid. We learned in a Beraita: The Aron which Moshe made had ten cubits of space on each side when it was placed in the middle of the Holy of Holies. However, when measuring the empty space we find that the entire room was merely twenty by twenty… It thus comes out that the place of the Aron did not lessen any physical space at all. 13) Source: Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch, Sefer HaMaamarim 5678, page 420 The meaning of the phrase, “There is none like Him,” refers to the connection of the infinite and the finite, similar to the combination of opposites which is only within the power of the Creator. Some philosophies say that things which are impossible have a permanent non-changeable nature, like riding and not riding at the same time. They say that this is not even possible for the Creator. In truth, however, this is not so. Two opposites can co-exist, such as riding and not riding simultaneously, but our minds are not capable of grasping this. 14a) Source: Ibn Ezra on Shemot 25:40 If HaShem placed wisdom in your heart, you will understand the secret of the Aron… The one who knows the secret of his soul and the structure of his body can know the workings of the supernal world, for the person is made like the image of a small world… These eleven things that were in the Mishkan, which is like an intermediary world that reflects the inner workings of the supernal world, are also found in the small world, each individual man. 14b) Source: The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichot vol. 26, page 253 The level of the Aron in the soul of man corresponds to the level of the innermost level of the soul: the yechidah. 15) Source: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, Chapter 26. There is a known saying of our sages: “Just as one blesses HaShem for the good etc. [so he should for the bad].” The Gemara explains this to mean “to accept it with joy”—just as the joy for revealed and apparent good, for this too is for the good, just not revealed and apparent to the physical eye. 16) Source: The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichot Volume 3, page 883 The meaning of bitachon (trust in HaShem) is not that he trusts that HaShem will do something which only HaShem knows is good. Rather, he trusts that HaShem will be benevolent to him with revealed good, which the person himself sees as good. This trust is necessary even in a time when a good outcome is not naturally foreseeable, and yet he trusts that HaShem will certainly help him, for HaShem is not limited and it is within His capability to change nature.