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Toward Shabbat: Ki Tissa

This week, we encounter an archetypal story in our parashah. Fearing that Moshe will never return from the mountain where he speaks with God, the Israelites fashion a golden calf—combining their resources in much the same way that they did to build the mishkan, the moving Tabernacle. But this time, instead of using their combined resources as a means through which to connect with infinite divine presence, they get confused and mistake a finite object for God.

In Moshe’s anger, he smashes the tablets he had brought down from the mountain, on which were inscribed the commandments. We read in Exodus 32:19: 

וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרַב אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה, וַיַּרְא אֶת-הָעֵגֶל, וּמְחֹלֹת; וַיִּחַר-אַף מֹשֶׁה, וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ מִיָּדָו אֶת-הַלֻּחֹת, וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֹתָם, תַּחַת הָהָר

“As soon as Moshe 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.”

Is Moshe’s smashing of the tablets just a classic case of rage leading to self-sabotage—as is the peshat (simple explanation) in the text, and as many of our rabbis suggest? Or might there be another possibility?

I want to suggest one: What if this wasn’t only a moment of angry outburst, but also one of profound pedagogy?

What if Moshe, upon witnessing his people worshiping the finite in place of the infinite, meant to destroy the tablets, to teach that even these—even the holiest stone, on which God’s commandments are inscribed—are not God. As if he was thinking, “Quick, before the people begin to worship this too—let me destroy it.” 

In a world in which religious fundamentalism threatens at times to become synonymous with religion, we can take these broken tablets as a reminder not to confuse our own beliefs for the infinite and absolute. Because the moment when we value the tablets—when we value our own religious law, our own belief system or ritual or religion—over another human being is a moment of idolatry.

There is a fascinating midrash in the Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 99b, that connects the breaking of the tablets to this same danger of prioritizing our religion above all else: 

אמר ריש לקיש פעמים שביטולה של תורה זהו יסודה דכתיב (שמות לד, א) אשר שברת אמר לו הקב”ה למשה יישר כחך ששברת

Resh Lakish said: Sometimes the neglect of Torah is actually its foundation. As it is written, “which (asher) you broke” (Exodus 34:1). The Holy Blessed One said to Moshe: “May your strength continue to be true (Yishar kohekha)” that you broke the tablets. 

This midrash plays on the similarity of the words “asher” and “yishar” to suggest that God was actually congratulating Moshe in his breaking of the tablets—for in so doing, Moshe demonstrated that he knew not to make Torah into an idol, prioritized over human beings. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that idolatry is forbidden because there already exists an image of God in this world: human beings, who are created “b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). At the same time as we hold onto our Torah as an “etz Chayim, a source of life” we cannot allow it to supplant our value of each individual human being—of any religion, any background—as inherently worthy beyond any object.

The Israelites’ struggle to stay connected to the infinite in an uncertain, threatening, and distracting world mirrors our own struggle to do the same. It’s impossible to be completely connected with our highest priority at all times—we keep getting distracted, as is natural. Our religious task is then to continually bring our attention, and our devotion, back to what’s truly important—even when it’s much easier to give our devotion to the idols of money, power, or even our own beliefs—which is why the tablets must be smashed.

Like the breaking of the glass under the huppah, like a meditation bell, or a shofar—may these broken tablets serve as a reminder to bring our attention back to the sacredness of human beings and life above all else.