Thursday, March 16, 2017

Broken Tablets

A mere 40 days after hearing God’s voice pronounce the Ten Commandments, the Israelites suffered a serious setback. Unable to comprehend the idea of an invisible God speaking in a Divine voice, they returned to the more familiar, simplistic, man-made idols of their immediate Egyptian past — the golden calf. Upon shaping the golden calf, Aaron declared, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

Moses, who spent those same 40 days atop Mount Sinai with God, then descended the mountain “with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, written on both sides” (Exodus 32:15).

Who had shaped and written these tablets?

“The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God” (Exodus 32:16).

Carrying in his hand the weight of “God’s word,” Moses looked down at his own brothers and sisters. “And it happened when he drew near the camp that he saw the calf and the dancing, and Moses’ wrath flared, and he flung the tablets from his hand and smashed them at the bottom of the mountain” (Exodus 32:19). In one dark moment, the romanticized fantasy of one people becoming the bearers of God’s word was shattered to pieces.

Next came the real challenge: Where do we go from here?

The Talmud teaches: “Rabbi Judah bar Ilai said - Two arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness — one where the Torah was kept, and one where the tablets broken by Moses were kept. The one containing the Torah was kept in the Tent of Meeting; the other, containing the broken tablets, would come and go everywhere with them” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim, 1:1).

Another Talmudic teaching goes one step further: “Both the new tablets of the law and the broken pieces of the first tablets were kept in the same Ark of the Covenant” (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot, 8b).

How did Moses and the Israelites move beyond their breakdown? Realizing their mistake and what they had potentially lost, the Israelites searched for remnants of the first tablets, collected the broken remains of their first encounter with God, and they gave them to Moses. Fortunate enough to be given a second chance, Moses brought down another set of God-given tablets and placed them alongside the broken pieces.

Both Talmudic teachings (“separate arks” or “the same ark”) offer us a powerful reminder that wholeness and brokenness share equal spaces in life. The Tablets of the Law, in both whole and broken form, serve as a metaphor for the human condition — striving for perfection, all the while embracing imperfection. Both the whole and the broken are considered sacred in the Jewish tradition. They are both “Devar Hashem – the word of God.”

Failures, broken dreams and shattered fantasies are an inevitable and natural part of life. Indeed, Shevirat Luhot -- the symbolic “shattering of tablets” -- is often a necessary gateway through which we must pass in order to reach the greater heights that we seek in life. In other words: no pain, no gain.

Through the episode of the golden calf, the broken tablets, and the second tablets, Moses and the Israelites teach us a very powerful lesson in life, one that has been part of the Jewish experience for thousands of years: when we experience a breakdown, it is still possible to “pick up the pieces” and start all over again.