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Seeing is Believing?

By: Rav Yonny Sack

Perhaps, as difficult as it is to try and understand the disaster of the Golden Calf that takes place in our parasha - how it is that a nation could fall from the Igra Rama to the Bira Amikta – the greatest heights to the deepest of pits? -  it is equally difficult to understand Moshe’s reaction in smashing the luchot (tablets) that he had just received from Hashem. Perhaps to underscore the severity of breaking the luchot, the Torah goes out of its way to describe their holiness and uniqueness, just before they are broken instead of when they are given to Moshe[1]:

And Moshe turned and descended from the mountain, and the two Tablets of the testimony were in his hand, Tablets inscribed on both of their surfaces…the Tablets were the work of G-d and the writing was the writing of G-d etched on the Tablets… It happened as he (Moshe) drew near the camp, and he saw the calf and the dances, and Moshe’s anger flared, and he threw the tablets from his hands and he smashed them at the bottom of the mountain.

There are so many questions: How could Moshe have smashed the luchot, made and written by Hashem Himself?  What was he thinking? Was this deed given the approval of Hashem? Is there a deeper connection between the crime of the golden calf and Moshe’s response that the Torah is trying to teach us?

Let us try to delve into one fascinating and profound explanation of this puzzling episode and draw out a relevant and powerful lesson for our lives.

The simple reading of the story is difficult to unravel. To suppose this smashing of the luchot was nothing but a moment of anger provoked irrational outburst, where Moshe was so enraged by what he saw in the worship of the golden calf that he smashed the first thing he happened to be holding – is very difficult to swallow. Moshe was the most humble person who lived[2], and we know from the works on character refinement that humility is the key ingredient to prevent and control anger[3]. In Masechet Shabbat[4] the gemara says that one who breaks something in anger is like worshiping idols. It would be somewhat ironic then for Moshe to have broken the luchot in anger, akin to idolatry, because of his seeing the worshiping of an idol! Furthermore, if Moshe was so angered by the calf, why did he not break the luchot when Hashem told him in detail about what they were doing when he was still up on the mountain? And if you want to say, because “ Seeing is believing” so he only broke them when he saw it with his own eyes, this too is difficult, since Moshe had received a clear Divine prophetic message of what had transpired, he certainly believed before his eyes of flesh saw.

So we are left puzzled.

If he didn’t break them in a moment of loss of control, then he must have broken them for a reason – the question is what?  Indeed, the last Rashi on the last pasuk in the entire Torah tells us that Hashem praised Moshe for breaking the luchot –  “Yashar Koach SheShibarta! – Well done for breaking them!”, yet for what did Moshe receive a Divine Shkoyach?

There are numerous responses to these questions found in chazal and the mefarshim (see notes for some references[5]) but we are going to focus on one which is loosely based on the Meshech Chochma[6].

Moshe wanted to teach a lesson to the people. As he himself describes in his retelling of the episode in Devarim[7] "I grasped the two Tablets and threw them from my two hands, and I smashed them before your eyes”. The smashing was meant to be for the people to see. The people had fallen with the golden calf because they thought that their leader Moshe was gone[8]. A people who had been immersed in Egyptian culture, a worship of the physical, had also looked at Moshe as a physical embodiment of holiness from above[9]. Moshe formed the link between an invisible G-d and a physical world. With Moshe seemingly gone, the people panicked[10], and sought an alternative. The molten calf was to represent as aspect of the Divine in physical form[11] and give the people a much-needed tangible connection point to the spiritual – a visible replacement. 

Moshe thus realized that breaking the luchot was the perfect message. It would be a shocking wake up call, to teach the people that physicality is not where holiness resides intrinsically.  Rather, Hashem decides when and where a physical object will be given holy status, but still in essence, spirituality is found beyond what the eye can see. So Moshe took the quintessential physical embodiment of holiness – luchot of stone made and written by Hashem Himself - and smashed them in front of their eyes, as if to tell them “ You need to realize that G-d is not something you can see, measure and touch. He is much bigger than that. I too, Moshe am nothing but a man! You must let go of the need for the physical! That is the Egyptian materialistic world that you have left behind. You need to learn to connect to Hashem as the invisible G-d. Invisible to the physical eye, but deeply ‘visible’ to the inner eye – the eye of the soul.”

Under the circumstances, it was a powerful necessary lesson, smashing the most holy physical objects in existence to teach that true holiness is found beyond the physical.

This lesson is so important for our generation. In many ways this is a ‘what you see is what you get’, ‘seeing is believing’ generation. We seem to be so focused on what we can see that we miss the true beauty of that which we cannot. We still ‘worship’ the physical as if it is some sort of replacement god. Just think how much time, energy, money and headspace is spent on the externals of our lives. We too, need to train ourselves to see with our inner eye, beyond the smokescreen of the physical and unlock the incredible, infinite hidden depth. To use the physical as a vessel but not let it become an object of worship.

Some 80 days later on Yom Kippur, after receiving Moshe’s message, and much teshuva, the people were ready for a new set of luchot. Now the luchot would not be worshipped but rather be the eidut – testimony- that they were intended to be. The testimony of Hashem’s relationship with us, of the Torah and its message and of how to access spirituality with sincere devotion to Hashem. Beautifully though, these new tablets would soon reside, side by side, with the broken shards of the first, housed in the Aron , the Ark of the Covenant together– as an eternal message of how far we can stray and how far we can return if we if we don’t keep our inner eyes on the correct spiritual proverbial ‘ball’.

Have a beautiful Shabbos.


[1] This is an insight of the Netziv and the Ramban

[2] Bamidbar 12:3 – parashat Behaalotecha

[3] Shaarei Kedusha, Rav Chaim Vital.

[4] 105b

[5]See the Midrash Rabah 46 , Rabeinu Bachayei, Chizkuni, Seforno, Avot DeRabbi Natan, Ramban, HaEmek Davar, Kli Yakar – amongst others who give constructive reasons as to why Moshe chose to break the luchot. Ramban however brings as one of his pshat answers, that Moshe saw the calf and simply could not hold himself back. As we have said, most mefarshim do not say that this was uncontrolled anger.

[6] Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk in his work on the chumash.

[7] 19:17

[8] See Rashi and Ramban.

[9] Meshech Chochma

[10] Rashi based on Chazal.

[11] See the Meshech Chochma who explains the calf was a representation of the one corner of the Divine chariot which was indeed the face of an ox. Many mefarshim explain along the same lines.


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