Breaking In Order to Make Whole
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
The gold of the calf-shaped idol glinted and gleamed as the nation danced around it with a glee bordering on mania. The two tablets of the covenant that Moshe (Moses) held close as he made his way down from Mount Sinai took no time at all to lift in to the air. Moshe held the tablets engraved with the commandments of eternity, the tablets supernaturally engraved to be read on both sides, the tablets given by the Almighty Himself…and smashed them to the ground.
“It happened as he drew near the camp and saw the calf and the dances, that Moshe’s anger flared up. He threw down the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 32:19). At the foot of the mountain -- where the Jewish People had spiritually descended to.
Imagine that moment. The anticipation… The let-down… The shock. Breaking the Hope Diamond or tearing the Mona Lisa to shreds doesn’t even come close. How could he have done it?
Moshe did not shatter the tablets in a fit of fury born of despair. This wasn’t the desperate act of a man choking on his own defeat. To the contrary, Moshe broke the tablets for no other purpose than to make things whole. Balance needed to be restored to the nation. A broken truth needed to be pieced back together again by shattering a terribly mistaken idea.
What had gone wrong? When Moshe descended from Mount Sinai, the glittering sight of the golden calf told him one thing: these people still attributed holiness, power, and divinity to physical objects. All that gives physical objects worth are the spiritual realities they represent, but the Jewish People were mistakenly attributing absolute value to the objects themselves.
Moshe could see that unless something drastically changed, the Jewish People would wake up one morning at the dawn of a new period and begin worshipping the tablets themselves. The tablets would be made in to a false god. The Jews would ignore the truths written on the tablets in cheap exchange for a superstitious belief in the supposed godliness of two blocks of stone. They means would be made into the ends and the true purpose of the tablets, the message engraved upon them, would be forgotten. Their Jews’ relationship with the Almighty would be shattered by the false worship of the tablets; better to shatter the tablets themselves.
What shocked the nation back into reality was the moment when Moshe lifted the sacred tablets up and smashed them into smithereens. The impression that a superficial reading of the text might have given us depicted an angry, desperate man. Understanding the true meaning of his actions shows us that Moshe’s flexibility and focus were as agile as we would expect of such a spiritual master.
Moshe didn’t lose sight of his objective for a moment. His was the job of forging a relationship between the chosen nation and the Creator of the universe. No worth could be found in mere physical objects, Moshe’s daring spectacle declared. Holiness and absolute value could be attributed to the Almighty alone, the infinite, omniscient, loving Eternal. No absolute truths exist save His commandments, directing man towards the elevation of his nature, the refinement of his character, and into a profound and intimate relationship with none other than the Almighty Himself.
The tablets are not holy in and of themselves, shouted Moshe’s rash act. Whether tablet or temple, mountain or stream, the privilege of existence is derived only from the potential to serve the purposes of the Creator, certainly not from any inherent power or value they possess in and of themselves.
The tablets may have been broken but the message upon them was saved.