Breaking the Tablets

Author: Rachel Adelman, Adar 5766 תשס"ו/March 2006

Reflections on the First Luhot

After forty days and forty nights at the top of Mount Sinai, Moshe is given "the two tablets of the covenant, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God." (Ex. 31:18). After being informed of the people’s cavorting about the molten calf, Moshe pleads their cause while still at the top of the Mountain and exacts a suspension of the original decree. Before the prophet descends, we are introduced to the tablets again: "Thereupon Moshe turned and went down from the mount bearing the tablets of the Covenant, tablets inscribed on both sides, inscribed on one side and the other; they were the work of God, and the writing, the writing of God, inscribed on the tablets." (Ex. 32:15). According to Hazal the Luhot (tablets), were one of the ten things created at twilight on the Sixth Day of Creation (Avot 5:6). What happened to the original tablets and the divine Ketav (writing) with which they were engraved? Though Moshe pleaded the Israelites’ cause before God at the top of the mountain, as soon as he saw their revelry directly, around the Golden Calf, he was seized with fury and threw the Luhot, breaking them at the base of the mountain (Ex. 33:19). How did he dare? God’s ineffable name, the Tetragramatton, was engraved in that stone! Was his reaction a spontaneous outburst or a deliberate demonstration?

The midrash, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer chapter 45, imaginatively re-writes this scene, endowing the letters with a will of their own:

Moshe took the tablets, and as he descended (the Mountain), the letters held themselves, and so did Moshe. But when they saw the drums and the dancing and the calf, they flew up from the tablets, which then became unbearably heavy in Moshe’s arms, and he could no longer carry himself or the tablets, so he thrust them from his arms and they broke, as it says, "And he shattered them at the foot of the mountain" (Ex. 32:19). (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 45).

By suggesting that Moshe merely ‘dropped’ the tablets because he could no longer bear their weight, he is exonerated of willfully smashing them. Furthermore, it is the letters of the Torah, which grant the tablets sanctity and when they fly away they leave behind merely profane stone; smashing the tablets then entails no irreverence. Before the sin of the golden calf, the letters ‘float’ suspended within the stone, bearing their own weight. As long as the letters carry themselves, the stone is also imbued with the ‘bearable lightness of being’. As the mishnah says of the letters, ‘read not harut, engraved, but heirut, free—for one is only a freeman if one engages in Talmud Torah’ (Avot 6:2). I’d like to suggest that the buoyancy of the letters within the stone reflects the state of the nation. That is, as long as they were one with God’s command, "they were free" like the letters; but as soon as they distanced themselves through idolatry, the letters flew off and the tablets become solid, pure density, sacral space, like the golden calf itself, and Moshe could no longer bear them (the tablets/the people) or himself.

The relationship between the stone and the letters serves as an ‘objective correlative’ for the spiritual state of the nation. No longer able to abide the absence of Moshe any longer, they chose a calf, made of solid gold, to replace the God-Who-has-no-image. The molten idol is the deity to which the people gesticulated: "Zeh [this] is your god who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (Ex. 32:4). Yet the very same words had been used in the First Commandment: "Anokhi, I, the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt…" (Ex. 20:2). They replace "zeh" [this] with the Anokhi, God’s declaration of "I am". The people had been given a set of laws, engraved on tablets, which explicitly made the making of molten images forbidden (Ex. 20: 4). The letters, as blank space suspended in stone, represent the necessity for the God-of-no-image to replace the penchant for thingness—the "this" of the pointing finger. When Moshe smashes the tablets, he is the paragon iconoclast (lit. "breaker of idols"). He insists that the God of language and law, represented by the blank space suspended in stone, replace the penchant for thingness, the concrete solidity of idols.

The Talmud states that had they not sinned with the Golden Calf, the Torah would never have been forgotten (TB Eruvin 54a); it would have been engraved on each and every one who had stood at Sinai—and become a source of 'genetic, collective memory.' Yet this movement towards the abstract, towards language and away from concrete images, was too ‘unbearably light’ for them. Rather, the people felt collectively the gift of Torah to be a burden as heavy as solid stone, for they did not feel the freedom of the law, heirut, which the suspended letters represented. Thus, in PRE 45, the letters ‘fly away’ because the people cannot bear their weight (or weightlessness). Instead, they engaged in filling in the blank space of the letters with density, with a molten idol of solid gold, symbolized by the Tablets, which Moshe could then no longer carry.

Yet there is comfort in the second set of tablets. There is a famous statement by Reish Lakish, in the Talmud, based on God’s command to Moshe to carve out new tablets, replacing the ones he had broken, "asher shibarta" (Ex. 34:1). The Holy One blessed be He affirmed Moshe’s audacious act: "yesher kohekh asher shibarta (Good that you broke them!)" (TB Shabbat 87a). The Talmudic passage praises Moshe for deliberately smashing them. Yet had the tablets not been broken, the Torah would have never been forgotten! Wherein lies the gain? Forgetting necessitates invention or, at least, interpretation; had there been only theTorah-she-bi-khtav (the written Torah) engraved in the mind of every member of the nation, there would have been no necessity for the oral tradition, the Torah-she-be’al-peh. This Shabbat, I would like to bless you with the grace of the first Luhot, and the legacy of their shards:

May you find the letters of Torah buoyant within your soul,
And breathe through them the breath of life.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rachel Adelman
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