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Ki Tisa 5770

By: Rav David Milston

As Am Yisrael begin to involve themselves with the Golden Calf, Hashem stops His dialogue with Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai and tells him to return to the people: “And Moshe turned and descended the mountain, and the two tablets of the Testimony were in his hands; tablets written on both of their sides, on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. And when Yehoshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moshe, there is a noise of war in the camp. But he said, it is not the voice of those who shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of those who cry for being overcome, but the voice of those who sing do I hear. And it came to pass, as soon as he drew near the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing, and Moshe’s anger burned, and he threw the tablets out of his hands, and broke them at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink it.”[1] Having discussed Aharon’s behavior in the previous sicha, I would like to now discuss Moshe Rabbeinu’s initial response upon returning to the camp. The Torah tells us the two tablets of stone were the ‘work’ and the ‘writing’ of God. Knowing how respectful we are today when holding a Sefer Torah, and how careful we are not to drop it, Heaven forbid, it is difficult to understand why Moshe threw the tablets to the ground. Who gave Moshe permission to take the holiest of objects and smash them to smithereens? Rashi makes two famous (and seemingly contradictory) comments regarding Moshe’s actions and the way they were ‘received’ in Heaven: “And the Lord said to Moshe, hew for yourself two tablets of stone like the first: and I will write upon these tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you did break.”[2] When relating to the word ‘yourself,’ Rashi says Hashem ordered Moshe to hew the new tablets himself, i.e. you broke the last ones so you create the new ones! This implies a certain criticism of Moshe. The negative implications are only reinforced by a parable:[3] A king traveled abroad, leaving his bride together with her maidservants back at the palace. Whilst he was away, the maidservants misbehaved and rumors spread about the bride. The ‘best man,’ while acting to protect the bride, destroyed the marriage documents so the bride would not be accused of breaking her marital vows. Upon the king’s return and subsequent investigation, he revealed his bride’s innocence and the maidservants’ guilt. The ‘best man’s’ actions had been protective, but rash and unnecessary in retrospect. The king thus told the ‘best man,’ “You tore up our marriage agreement, so you must rewrite it!” Rashi clearly understands Moshe’s initial response to have been an act of protection, aimed at saving Am Yisrael. The people were worshipping idols, an act totally forbidden by Torah law. Such a deed would be worthy of the death sentence, but only if the people had actually received the Torah and entered the binding contract with the Almighty. So Moshe smashes the tablets, essentially tearing up the marriage contract. Now the people cannot be punished, because the agreement was never confirmed. Yet when investigating the matter further, Moshe reveals the real perpetrators – the ‘eirev rav’ – who joined the Exodus at the last minute, grasping the chance to escape with Am Yisrael.[4] Thus in retrospect, his breaking the tablets was an unnecessary gesture. Hashem seemingly rebukes Moshe saying, ‘you broke them so now you can hew new tablets for Me.’ Although the rebuke is not total, the spirit of the comment remains fairly negative. Moshe loved his people to the extent he would do anything to protect them. He had no permission to do what he did, but he was prepared to risk his life to protect their interests. Rashi’s parable implies he was impulsive; had he waited a little longer he would have discovered his actions were unnecessary. Such an interpretation needs further study. A brief look at the ensuing dialogue between the Almighty and Moshe clearly indicates that Am Yisrael were in a grave predicament,[5] despite the fact that only a relatively small group of people were actually killed as a result of this transgression. On the one hand, the parable largely absolves Am Yisrael of guilt in the Golden Calf incident. On the other, God’s willingness to wipe the people off the face of the earth would certainly seem to imply there is more here than meets the eye, even if the sin was instigated by the ‘eirev rav.’ It is maybe with this in mind that Rashi makes another, almost contradictory comment regarding Moshe’s actions. When commenting on the last words in our verse ‘which you did break,’[6] Rashi says the Almighty demonstrated his approval of Moshe’s actions by using these words – ‘Yeshar Cochacha’ – well done for breaking them.’ Now we are confused! The parable in Shemot suggests Moshe should have thought twice before acting so emphatically. At the end of Devarim, Rashi unequivocally expresses the Almighty’s support for Moshe as he descended Har Sinai. So was Moshe right or not? In the previous sicha, we spoke of the need to lead; the need to take responsibility. Perhaps we can learn a similar message from Rashi’s apparently incongruous statements. On the one hand, Moshe is politely rebuked because he should have delved a little further into the incident before acting so severely. Yet on the other hand, and far more importantly, Moshe is to be congratulated and encouraged for truly doing what any real leader should do. Indeed, according to Rashi, this act was so prestigious it merits being the last thing referred to in the Torah. Moshe laid his life on the line by taking an extreme initiative, without initial approval from Heaven. His sole purpose was to protect the masses by quickly ‘dissolving the partnership agreement’ before the people would have to pay for their ‘breach of contract.’ However angry Moshe was; however disillusioned and betrayed he might have felt, his personal feelings did not interfere with his ultimate objective as a prophet of the people. His job was to protect and defend his flock at all costs! We see Moshe Rabbeinu as Israel’s greatest human savior, especially if we repeat our suggestion that the whole people were clearly implicated in the sin, possibly because of their indifference to the heretical behavior of the eirev rav. Even Moshe’s ‘impulsive’ reaction was a reflection of his deep love and commitment for Am Yisrael, a desperate attempt to save the people he loved so much. We have not really reconciled Rashi’s two comments, but we have established two important facts: 1. Moshe initiated the breaking of the tablets. 2. At least according to Rashi, this was not an act of uncontrolled human anger fired by despair and a deep feeling of betrayal and disappointment. It was a shrewd, selfless act aimed at protecting his people from the Almighty’s wrath. The Abarbanel has an entirely different interpretation:[7] Although Moshe prayed and even begged for his people when speaking to the Almighty upon returning to the camp,[8] his immediate objective was to rebuke and educate the very same people he had so stubbornly defended just moments before. He fulfilled the prophet’s truest role – defending the people in front of God, whilst almost simultaneously ‘defending’ God in front of the people. The Abarbanel sees Moshe’s tablet-breaking as the ultimate educational act. He broke the tablets because they contained details of a relationship between God and the people that was currently null and void. He also chose to break them in a very dramatic and public fashion to impress upon the people the severity of their predicament. In one of several comments on this episode, the Kli Yakar[9]suggests Moshe was simply enacting a commitment he would later express directly to the Almighty. [10] When pressing God for absolute forgiveness, Moshe says if the people are not forgiven he ‘wants out.’ He is part of the people. Their fate is his fate! Seemingly with this in mind, the Kli Yakar suggests Moshe purposely sinned by breaking the tablets in order to be included in the fate of the people. Presumably Moshe is saying, ‘they sinned, they have broken the covenant, so I too will literally break the covenant.’ If the ship is going to sink, then the Captain must go down too.’ The Meshech Chochmah remarkably suggests the action of breaking the two tablets was pure education at its very best.[11] In contrast to Rashi, he does not think the people reverted to ancient idolatry. He also differs from the Ramban, who thinks the people wanted a replacement for Moshe. They weren’t looking for an alternative religion; they simply wanted a tangible media through which to serve God. As we know only too well, the challenge of serving the King of Kings is made infinitely more difficult by His physical invisibility.[12] We are constantly searching for the Creator, attempting to reveal Him in everything we do, and wherever we go. It is human nature to create a tangible representation to relate to God in easier fashion. The people created a Calf to reach the Almighty. They were clearly unaware that such an action would inevitably lead to real idolatry. The first generation may well perceive the Calf to be a means to an ends, but as time passed, there would be more and more emphasis on the Calf, and less emphasis on God himself. This is one of life’s greatest dangers. Confuse the means with the ends, and it can have devastating results. While coming down the mountain, Moshe immediately perceives the imminent dangers. He has the tablets of stone in his hands and the risk is blatantly obvious. If he brings these tablets – the written word of God – into the camp, they too will become idols. So he smashes the tablets. By this public destruction, he shows the people that Jews need no media whatsoever. We do not need the tablets, and we certainly don’t need the Calf. We can and we should always turn directly to God. When the people see Moshe’s readiness to throw the tablets to the ground; when they see the word of God exists even without a written symbol, they immediately understand the redundancy of the Golden Calf. And that’s why they show no resistance as he destroys the Calf in front of their very eyes. It could be that a relatively small group did have idolatrous intent from the outset, hence they were killed. Nevertheless, it would appear the people sinned in their misinterpretation of how we are expected to serve God. The severity of Moshe’s response almost immediately returned them to their senses. Once we understand we need no medium to reach the Almighty, we can hew the tablets and build the Mishkan itself. This is a matter of the utmost importance, especially today. We need to constantly remind ourselves however holy an article may be, however spiritual a leader may become, we worship God and God alone. In conclusion, I would like to suggest an additional reason why Moshe broke the tablets. At Har Sinai, Am Yisrael had experienced the ultimate revelation. It was an experience imprinted on our national soul for eternity. The tablets were the encapsulation of that experience. It is fair to assume the people eagerly awaited written confirmation of their spiritual reality. While they were waiting for Moshe they reverted to the cultural customs they had practiced during their years of slavery. Maybe there was no evil intent in the events surrounding the Golden Calf. Maybe the people were unaware of the ramifications of their actions. We can relate to that. How often do we find ourselves on autopilot, doing and saying things without really realizing what they mean? The people made the Calf, and they rejoiced around it, yet it is hard to imagine that this was the same people who just weeks before had received the Torah. How could they so quickly regress into a mass of pagan idolaters? It is much more likely they had not yet fully comprehended the extent of their commitment at Har Sinai. They were simply unaware of the new standards expected from them. When we do not realize the ramifications of our actions, we need to be shocked back into reality. This is exactly what Moshe did. By smashing the tablets of stone; by destroying the tangible representation of Matan Torah with his own hands, Moshe showed the people that their Calf and their ‘worship’ represented the same thing. They did not fully internalize what their actions really meant until they witnessed Moshe’s act. Upon seeing it, they immediately came to their senses. When educating myself, I try to internalize this reality. When someone is consistently late for appointments, that person is a thief. Of course he doesn’t think of his actions as theft, but what is the difference between stealing a cake from a shop, and stealing someone else’s time? Why do we shudder from the former but accept the latter? Perhaps because we do not realize what our behavior really represents. We have no chance of bettering ourselves if we remain oblivious to our wrongdoings. Once we realize we are doing something wrong, half the work is done. That was Moshe’s goal. He wanted to shock the people into understanding the ramifications of their actions. Once they understood, teshuva was much easier. My dear friends, Torah is worthless if we don’t understand our own obligations. It cannot do the work for us. We cannot absolve responsibility through golden calves or stone tablets: “You are the only problem you will ever have and you are the only solution. Change is inevitable. Growth is always a personal decision.”[13] To remember loved ones or mark special events, consider joining the growing list of bogrot and friends who have dedicated Limmud Torah at Midreshet HaRova. Go to our secure website at, or contact Leiba at for dedications in installments. [1] Shemot, 32:15-20. [2] Shemot, 34:1. [3] Not a literal translation. [4] See Rashi, Shemot ,32:4, towards the end of his comments. [5] See Shemot, 32:10. [6] This comment is found in the very last Rashi on the Torah – Rashi, Devarim 34:12. [7] Shemot, 32. [8] Shemot, 32:11-14. [9] Shemot, 32:16, towards the end of his comments. [10] Shemot, 32:32. [11] Shemot, 32:19. [12] Obviously, if God’s presence were apparent to perceive, it is difficult to imagine where free choice would begin. [13] Bob Proctor, life-success coach.


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