Parshat Ki Tissa – פרשת כי תשא

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Ki Tissa – פרשת כי תשא
March 3, 2018 – טז אדר תשעח
This essay is sponsored by Josh & Deena Davis in memory of Bernard Davis (Dov ben Yitzchak Z”L); and by Gary & Janet Waller in memory of Maxwell Alexander.
Breaking the Tablets
Forty days after the theophany, Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the Divinely- engraved tablets of testimony in his hands. “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).”
Why did Moses break the tablets? One might ask, more accusatorily, how Moses possessed the audacity to commit the sacrilege of destroying a Divine gift, the physical record of God’s covenant with Israel? Scripture offers little answer. After breaking the tablets, Moses turned his attention to the Golden Calf. He destroyed the graven image, punished the sinners, prayed for forgiveness on Israel’s behalf, and, upon God’s command, fashioned replacement tablets. The unfortunate fate of the first set of tablets is ignored. The text nowhere indicates that Moses was either punished or chastised by God for his destruction of the original tablets; this suggests that Moses’ behavior was perhaps not nearly as objectionable as we readers might infer.
Many of the greatest scholars of the Tannaitic era, including Rabbis Akiba, Ishmael, Elazar ben Azariah, Meir, and Judah ben Beteira, were uncomfortable with the idea that Moses took the initiative in breaking the tablets. Such bold action must have been in response to explicit Divine command (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 68c, Avot d’Rabbi Natan 2:2). The weakness of this view, however, is that no such Divine instruction is recorded anywhere in the Torah. To defend their interpretation, these sages resorted to thin homiletic interpretations of disparate Pentateuchal verses.
Judah ben Beteira cited God’s comment about his relationship with Moses: “With him I speak mouth to mouth (Numbers 12:8).” Just as all of Moses’ other official acts were in fulfillment of unambiguous words he heard directly from God, so too, therefore, was his breaking of the tablets. Elazar ben Azariah cited the Torah’s final verse: “And for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:12).” Just as Moses’ other displays of might (including smiting the Egyptians and leading the Israelites to liberation) were in fulfillment of Divine instructions, so too was his breaking of the tablets. Others cited a verse addressing the placement of the second set of tablets. “And I deposited the tablets in the ark that I had made, where they still are, as the Lord had commanded me (10:5).” Just as Moses’ treatment of the second set of tablets hewed strictly to Divine command, so too did his treatment of the first set of tablets.
The most famous of these expositions is attributed to both Ishmael and Meir. They cited God’s command to Moses: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered (Exodus 34:1).” The verse’s final clause, אשר שברת, is fancifully reread as יישר כוחך ששברת, or God’s congratulating Moses for his good work in complying with the Heavenly order to destroy the tablets. This exposition deserves credit for impressive wordplay and for supplying meaning to the verse’s otherwise redundant final clause. Yet it is far from compelling, as even this homiletic rereading can be employed to interpret the verse in a radically different manner.
The best-known theory about Moses’ breaking of the tablets is that he did so without Divine instruction, but that God endorsed Moses’ action post factum (Shabbat 87a). [The same explanation is offered concerning Moses’ one-day postponement of the Sinaitic Theophany and his separation from his wife.] The expression יישר כוחך ששברת, loosely and colloquially renderable as “Good job!,” is cited as proof that Moses acted independently but that subsequently God expressed His satisfaction with Moses’ initiative.
The Babylonian Talmud does not explain why Moses did what he did; it merely offers an Aggadic manipulation of Exodus 34:1 in case anyone was wondering how God reacted to the developments on the ground (an expression literally applicable in this case, since the tablets fell in pieces on the ground) or why Moses wasn’t punished.
Avot d’Rabbi Natan offers detailed conjecture about what happened to the first set of tablets. When Moses descended from Sinai and saw the Golden Calf, he realized that if he were to seal the covenant by delivering to the Israelites, intact, the Divinely-inscribed tablets of testimony, he would render the people collectively guilty of the patent capital offense of idolatry. To spare his people from the dire consequences of their sins, Moses decided to turn back to Mt. Sinai with the tablets in hand. He intended to return to the camp later and seal the covenant after the people had repented. The elders of Israel saw Moses turn away from them and tried to pry the tablets from him, but he overpowered them.
In this interpretation, Moses’ behavior and reasoning are compared to those of a royal agent ordered to find a beautiful and saintly woman for the king. The agent found such a woman and arranged the betrothal. But, shortly thereafter, she committed adultery. The agent voided the marriage contract so as to spare the woman from punishment and to allow for the marital bond to be reconstituted at a later date.
The Midrash offers a different view (Exodus Rabbah 46:1). Moses wanted God to forgive Israel for its sin of the Golden Calf, and reasoned that Israel had a much greater chance of securing that atonement if he himself was somehow implicated and in need of atonement, too. So, Moses shattered the tablets of testimony, willfully committing a sacrilege for the purpose of tying his fate to that of the Israelites. He challenged God: “If you forgive me then you must also forgive them. And if you refuse to forgive them, then do not forgive me, but rather erase me from your book.”
The explanations discussed above that posit that Moses acted on his own initiative are careful not to depict him as an unpredictable leader subject to violent outbursts in moments of crisis. Rather, Moses is ever and always the staunch defender of his people. An extension of what is explicit in Scripture, rabbinic literature embellishes Moses’ role in preventing or forestalling Israel’s punishment. Unlike Elijah, who was a zealot for the Lord and committed sacrilege by sacrificing at Mount Carmel to defend God’s honor, Moses did the unthinkable in a calculated gambit to spare the Children of Israel.
Some rabbinic interpreters of Scripture were uncomfortable with the theory that God commanded Moses to destroy the tablets (because of course no such command is set forth in the Torah) and also with the view that Moses did so on his own (because that seems to indicate incomprehensible effrontery). Instead, they posit that the tablets fell by accident. Rabbi Ezra explained that the tablets were very heavy. Moses could not hold them aloft by natural means. Rather, the sacred script itself miraculously carried the carved stone tablets. When the Heavenly letters flew off the tablets, Moses could not maintain his hold on them and so they fell (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 68c).
The notion that items imbued with intense sanctity carry themselves is also found with respect to the Ark of the Covenant. Although the Levites were commanded to carry the Ark during the wilderness travels, tradition teaches that the Ark miraculously carried its carriers (Sotah 35a). Menachem Recanati finds the human body can exhibit a similar trait. When a person is alive, and imbued with a soul, the body is comparatively light. Upon death and the departure of the godly soul, the body becomes much heavier.
Rashbam, similarly, interpreted the shattering of the first tablets as having been an accident. Moses was so distraught over what he saw happening in the Israelite camp that he lost his strength and could not maintain his grip on the tablets. Rashbam notes that when someone is about to drop something heavy he is careful to cast the item slightly away from his body to avoid injury. Moses did just that at the foot of the mountain. [In the movie “The Ten Commandments,” Cecil B. De Mille rejected this explanation, and had Charlton Heston throw the tablets a great distance in the direction of the Golden Calf.] This accident theory allows Rashbam, known for eschewing wild Midrashic interpretations, to avoid reading into the text a non-existent Divine command and to skirt the controversial issue of whether Moses acted independently.
Ibn Ezra offers the simplest and most plausible explanation. Moses broke the tablets spontaneously in jealous anger and on behalf of the Lord. He acted rashly in the moment, thinking that the Israelites were undeserving of the covenant.
We cannot know what motivated Moses. But it is easily understandable that traditional interpreters would shy away from the claim that Moses acted willfully and independently. One hallmark of an organized religion, and especially one that posits a past revelation of Divine legislation, is the demand of strict fealty to God’s instructions. Taking the initiative to worship, or to act, in a manner that seems right and honorable but was not expressly commanded is an inherently risky proposition (as Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu found out when they brought “alien fire” into the Tabernacle). Even without the Deuteronomic warning not to add or subtract from the Torah, it is obvious that any departure from the Code, even if for laudable reasons, could anger the Lawgiver. Because, in general, we look to the Biblical heroes for moral guidance, it is probably best not to believe that with a sober mind Moses took a unique and invaluable religious article, the tablets written by God’s own hand, and smashed them in the service of what he, subjectively and acting sua sponte, considered a higher spiritual purpose.