The Difference Between The First And Second Tablets
Rabbi Abahu said, “All the 40 days that Moses was on high, he kept on forgetting the Torah that he learned. He then said, ‘Sovereign of the universe, I have spent 40 days, and yet I know nothing.’ What did G-d do? At the end of the 40 days, He gave him the Torah as a gift” (Shemot Rabba 41:6).
The Sages have also said that on Tammuz 17, Moses descended and broke the first tablets, and on Tammuz 18 he went back up and pleaded for mercy on Israel for 40 days and 40 nights. At that point the Holy One, blessed be He, forgave Israel and told Moses to carve out the second tables and ascend. He descended on Av 28 in order to carve out the second Tables, ascending on Av 29, and the Torah was taught to him a second time.
Moses descended on Tishri 10, which was Yom Kippur, and told the Children of Israel that G-d had forgiven them, as it is written: “You shall forgive our iniquity and sin, and make us Your heritage” (Exodus 34:9). Hence this day has become a law and a memorial for all the generations, as it is written: “This shall be to you an eternal decree” (Leviticus 16:34).
The fact that Moses remained on the mountain for 40 additional days is surprising. Once he had learned the entire Torah and it had been given to him as a gift, why did he need to stay on the mountain for 40 more days to receive the second tablets? He already knew the entire Torah! If we say that Moses had to remain in order to appease the Creator, had he not already done so when the Children of Israel complained, as it is written: “The people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the L-RD and the fire died down” (Numbers 11:2)? When they sinned because of the spies, Moses proclaimed the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy before Him. In light of these things, could Moses not have prayed below, as he had done each time the Children of Israel sinned?
He Risked His Life for Israel
To explain this question, let us first say that when the Children of Israel made the golden calf, the Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses: “Go, descend.” The Sages explain that at that point, Moses was judged by the Celestial Court. This means that he was judged by Hashem and lowered from his greatness before having completed 40 days. Since he had been lowered from his greatness, he interrupted his Torah study and forgot what he had learned. This is why he had to remain on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, to relearn what he had forgotten (see Tanhuma, Ki Tisa 22).
What did Moses do during these 40 days and nights? He immersed himself in prayer and asked for mercy on the Children of Israel. At the same time, he reviewed his learning in order to remember all the great concepts that he had understood during the first 40 days. Since he was completely devoted to the Children of Israel and prayed for them as he studied, he merited for the skin of his face to shine.
Moses’ first ascent – when he studied G-d’s Torah and reviewed it, and when there was only Torah in him – was unlike his second ascent, when he reviewed his own learning while praying that the Holy One, blessed be He, should not destroy the Children of Israel. At that point Moses practiced serving Hashem (avodah) and bestowing good on others (gemilut chesed). Can there be a greater good than devoting your life to your people, to the point that the Sages have said: “ ‘Moses implored [vayechal] the L-RD his G-d’ [Exodus 32:11]. … This teaches us that Moses stood in prayer before the Holy One, blessed be He, until he wearied Him [chala]” (Berachot 32a). The Sages have also said that Moses risked his life for the Children of Israel.
Every Generation Has its Sages
See the greatness of kindness! Before Moses prayed for the Jewish people, even if he had studied Torah with G-d during his initial ascension, his face still did not shine. Yet when he began to pray with wholehearted lovingkindness, the skin of his face instantly began to shine.
The Sages have said, “There is an offshoot of Moses in every generation” (Tikkunei Zohar 114a). Every tzaddik that possesses these three qualities, we know that the world rests upon him and his merit. Likewise Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: “I am able to exempt the whole world from judgment from the day that I was born until now” (Sukkah 45b). This pertains to what kabbalists have explained on the verse, “You ascended on high, you have taken shevi [captives]” (Psalms 68:19). That is, the term shevi is formed by the initial of Shimon bar Yochai, meaning that when Moses ascended on high, he as it were “captured” the souls of the tzaddikim in every generation. Our Sages have said, “The Holy One, blessed be He, showed Moses every generation and its judges…every generation and its leaders” (Vayikra Rabba 26:7), and He gave them the power to support the world by their merit alone.
Since Moses, during his second 40-day stay on the mountain, was busy doing a great deal of chesed, he merited many things. His face began to shine, and the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: “I have forgiven according to your word” (Numbers 14:20). He thereby obtained a day of forgiveness and atonement for all the generations. Not only that, but the second tablets contained what the first tablets did not. In fact the Sages say that when Moses felt regret for having broken the first tablets, Hashem said to him: “Don’t regret it, for the first tablets only contained the Ten Commandments, whereas the second tablets that I am giving you contain Halachot, Midrashim, Aggadot, etc.”