04 Aug Broken: Why Breaking the Tablets Was Moshe’s Greatest Accomplishment
“The world breaks everyone, and afterwards some are stronger in the broken places.” — Ernest Hemingway
The simple reading of the story (recorded twice in Torah, in Exodus, in this week’s portion, and then again in Deuteronomy) goes like this: After the Jews created a Golden Calf, Moshe smashed the stone tablets created by G-d, engraved with the Ten Commandments. Moshe and G-d then “debated” the appropriate response to this transgression and it was decided that if the people would truly repent, G-d would give them a second chance. Moshe hewed a second set of stone tablets; G-d engraved them also with the Ten Commandments, and Moshe gave them to the Jewish people.
Yet a few major questions come to mind.
1. Moshe, outraged by the sight of a golden calf erected by the Hebrews as a deity, smashed the stone tablets. He apparently felt that the Jews were undeserving of them, and that it would be inappropriate to give them this Divine gift. But why did Moshe have to break and shatter the heavenly tablets? Moshe could have hidden them or returned them to their heavenly maker?
2. The rabbis teach us that “The whole tablets and the broken tablets nestled inside the Ark of the Covenant.” The Jews proceeded to gather the broken fragments of the first set of tablets and had them stored in the Ark, in the Tabernacle, together with the second whole tablets.
Both sets of tablets were later taken into the Land of Israel and kept side by side in the Ark, situated in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem.
This seems strange. Why would they place the broken tablets in the Holy of Holies, when these fragments were a constant reminder of the great moral failure of the Jewish people. Why not just disregard them, or deposit them in a safe isolated place?
3. In its eulogy for Moshe, the Torah chooses this episode of smashing the tablets as the highlight and climax of Moshe’ achievements.
In the closing verses of Deuteronomy we read: “Moshe, the servant of G-d, died there in the land of Moab… And there arose not since a prophet in Israel like Moshe, whom G-d knew face to face; all the signs and wonders which G-d sent to do in the land of Egypt… that mighty hand, those great fearsome deeds, which Moshe did before the eyes of all Israel.”
What did Moshe do “before the eyes of all Israel?” Rashi, in his commentary on Torah, explains “That his heart emboldened him to break the tablets before their eyes, as it is written, ‘and I broke them before your eyes.’ G-d’s opinion then concurred with his opinion, as it is written, ‘which you broke—I affirm your strength for having broken them.”
This is shocking. Following all of the grand achievements of Moshe, the Torah chooses to conclude its tribute to Moshe by alluding to this episode of breaking the tablets! Granted that Moshe was justified in breaking the tablets, but can this be said to embody his greatest achievement? How about his taking the Jews out of Egypt? Molding them into a people? Splitting the Red Sea? Receiving the Torah from G-d and transmitting it to humanity? Shepherding them for forty years in a wilderness?
Why does the Torah choose this tragic and devastating episode to capture the zenith of Moshe’ life and as the theme with which to conclude the entire Torah, all five books of Moshe?!
In the Fragments
We need to examine this entire episode from a deeper vantage point.
Moshe did not break the tablets because he was angry and lost his control. Rather, the breaking of the tablets was the beginning of the healing process. Before the golden calf was created, the Jews could find G-d within the wholesomeness of the tablets, within the spiritual wholesomeness of life. Now, after the people have created the golden calf, hope was not lost. Now they would find G-d in the shattered pieces of a once beautiful dream.
Moshe was teaching the Jewish people the greatest message of Judaism: Truth could be crafted not only from the spiritually perfected life, but also from the broken pieces of the human corrupt and demoralized psyche. The broken tablets, too, possess the light of G-d.
Which is why the sages tell us that not only the whole tablets, but also the broken ones, were situated in the holy of holies. This conveyed the message articulated at the very genesis of Judaism: From the broken pieces of life you can create a holy of holies.
G-d, the sages tell us, affirmed Moshe’ decision to break the tablets.
G-d told him, “Thank you for breaking them (4).” Because the broken tablets, representing the shattered pieces of human existence, have their own story to tell; they contain a light all their own. Truth is found not only in wholesomeness, but also—sometimes primarily—in the broken fragments of the human spirit (5). There are moments when G-d desires that we connect to Him as wholesome people, with clarity and a sense of fullness; there are yet deeper moments when He desires that we find Him in the shattered experiences of our lives.
We hope and pray to always enjoy the “whole tablets,” but when we encounter the broken ones, we ought not to run from them or become dejected by them; with tenderness we ought to embrace them and bring them into our “holy of holies,” recalling the observation of one of the Rebbe’s, “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.”
We often believe that G-d can be found in our moments of spiritual wholesomeness. But how about in the conflicts which torment our psyches? How about when we are struggling with depression, addiction or confusion? How about when we fece despair and pain? How about in very conflict between a godless existence and a G-d-centered existence? We associate “religion” with “religious” moments. But how about our “non-religious” moments?
What Moshe accomplished with breaking the tablets was the demonstration of the truth that the stuff we call holiness can be carved out from the very alienation of a person from G-d. From the very turmoil of his or her psychological and spiritual brokenness, a new holiness can be discovered.
It is on this note that the Torah chooses to culminate its tribute to Moshe’ life. The greatest achievement of Moshe was his ability to show humanity how we can take our brokenness and turn it into a holy of holies. There is light and joy to be found in the fragments of sacredness.