The Breaking of the Tablets of the Law

The Torah ends with the words “…and by all the strong hand and awesome power that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:12), and it begins with, “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). We must try and establish a link between the end of the Torah and its beginning.

Man was created only to adhere to G-d’s will and give Him satisfaction (if we may express it as such) by engaging in Torah study and the performance of mitzvot. It is in this way that a person cleaves to G-d with the utmost degree of sincerity and devotion. Now just as a person who loves money is never satisfied by it (Ecclesiastes 5:9), one who truly loves G-d never tires; he is constantly trying to love G-d and cling to Him.

This deals with someone whose occupation is Torah study. Nevertheless a person who works in order to meet his needs, yet still fixes times for studying Torah, must also increase his hours of study and constantly be on the watch to embellish the mitzvot he performs, a concept embodied by the verse: “This is my G-d, and I will adorn Him” (Exodus 15:2). This is what essentially characterized our Patriarchs, who spoke little and did much (Perkei Avoth 1:15).

When the Children of Israel committed the sin of the golden calf, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: “Go, descend, for your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt has become corrupt” (Exodus 32:7). Afterwards, as Moses approached the camp, he saw the calf and the people dancing. At that point his wrath blazed, and he threw down the Tablets of the Law from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain (v.19). Why did Moses not leave the Tablets of the Law in Heaven? He could have descended from Heaven empty-handed and reprimanded the Children of Israel for their wrongdoing, and then he could have beseeched Hashem to forgive them. Moses could have argued with Hashem that it was to him, not to the people, that He gave the prohibition against idol worship, after which he could have asked G-d to erase him from the book of life (v.32).

On the other hand, commenting on the last words of Deuteronomy (“in the eyes of all Israel”), Rashi explains that Moses was proud to have broken the tablets before the people, as it is written: “I smashed them before your eyes” (Deuteronomy 9:17). G-d also agreed with him, as it is written: “Like the first…which you shattered” (Exodus 34:1). The Gemara adds that G-d told Moses, “All strength to you that you broke it” (Shabbat 87a). What pride is there in this? Was the sin of the golden calf not serious enough to warrant such a response? Furthermore, why did G-d congratulate Moses for his deed?

The answer is that the love that Moses had for the Children of Israel was boundless. Thus even following the sin of the golden calf, after Hashem told him to descend from his lofty level (Berachot 32a), Moses felt pity for the Jewish people rather than accusing and hating them. More than ever, he felt that they needed to engage in the study of Torah in order to dominate their evil inclination, for without the Torah they could only get worse.

Thus Moses took the initiative and broke the Tablets of the Law (the holy writings list two other initiatives that he took). If he was proud of what he did, it was in the sense that he felt personally responsible for their misdeed. Moses therefore wanted them to repent and realize what they had lost on account of their sin. In fact after they saw with their very eyes that Moses was still alive and coming down from Heaven in order to give them the Tablets of the Law, they felt the need to do teshuvah. It was this repentance that contributed to their sin being forgiven on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and they showed the generations to come the power of repentance even for idol worship.

Moses took this initiative for the glory of G-d and to implore Him to forgive the Children of Israel. This is why G-d congratulated him. It was because of what Moses did, G-d said, that they could continue living in this world and engage in the study of Torah. If, G-d forbid, He had killed them, the world would have been destroyed because it cannot endure without the Jewish people and the Torah, as it is written: “If not for My covenant [the Torah], I would not have appointed days and nights, the decrees of heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 33:25).

The last letters in the expression Bereshith bara Elokim (“In the beginning G-d”) form the word emet (“truth”), which is the Torah (Rosh Hashanah 3:8; Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Zutah 21). Hashem created all that exists for the sake of Torah, which is called Truth, as it is written: “Purchase the truth and do not sell it” (Proverbs 23:23). Similarly, after Torah readings we recite the blessing, “Who has given us the Torah of truth” (see Berachot 11b). Thus because Moses broke the Tablets of the Law, the world continued to exist and the Children of Israel repented of the sin of the golden calf and returned to studying Torah (reshith). Moses showed them that their spiritual descent was meant only for their spiritual elevation. The Tablets of the Law and their fragments were placed in the Ark of the Covenant (Berachot 8b; Bava Batra 14b; Bamidbar Rabba 4:19) mainly so we could constantly be reminded of the results, which is that our hearts and bodies will be broken and bruised when we sin. We will then regret our wicked deeds and refrain from ever returning to them. After our teshuvah, we will return to bereshith, the beginning, a name carried by the tzaddikim and pious ones, as it is written: “Israel is holy to the L-RD, the first of His crop” (Jeremiah 2:3). It is also a name that designates those who do sincere teshuvah, for not only do they return to their initial state before having sinned, they also elevate themselves forever. On this subject our Sages teach that in the place where penitents stand, even the wholly righteous cannot stand (Berachot 34b; Zohar I:129b). This is what happens in the realm of Torah, meaning that what is really important is for us to constantly augment our Torah study. This is perhaps what our Sages were referring to when they praised the study of Torah that leads to action (Kiddushin 40b). As we have seen, diligence in Torah study is of capital importance.

The expression nesav libo in Rashi’s commentary alludes to Moses’ initiative in breaking the tablets in order for the Children of Israel to be called reshith, as well as to increase their Torah study and teshuvah. That is how they earned Yom Kippur, a day in which their sins can be forgiven and they can elevate themselves. At the end of the Days of Awe, when we finish reading the book of Deuteronomy, we deal with the breaking of the tablets, an incident which enabled the Children of Israel to bear the name reshith, as at the beginning of the Torah (Bereshith bara).

The Gemara cites the statement of Rabbi Joseph: “But for the influence of this day, how many Josephs would there be in the market place?” (Pesachim 68b). A great number are not influenced by it, and hence they fail to augment their Torah study. They bear the name of Joseph only, not Rabbi or Rav Joseph. Only a person who is constantly augmenting his Torah study (Taanith 31a), one who is growing in strength from day to day, is called Rabbi or Rav by Heaven. This is notably demonstrated by the case of Elazar ben Durdaya, who underwent a complete and sincere repentance, one from the depths of his heart, after having committed a very grave sin (Avodah Zarah 17a). A person who considers the Torah as being constantly new (Pesikta Zutah, Va’etchanan 6:6) fills himself with the fear of Heaven and succeeds in his Torah studies. He proposes many novel Torah interpretations and infuses himself with the holiness of the very day in which the Torah was given. Such was the case of Rabbi Joseph, who organized a feast on that occasion.

This intensification in the service of Hashem follows a person even after death. For example, if he taught a person to abide by Hashem’s will, he will then have a share in his deeds. Such was the case with Adam, who bestowed 70 years of his life to King David (Zohar I:55b,168a). Now the Zohar teaches that it was Abraham, Jacob and Joseph who gave these years to David. Therefore we must ask what became of the years that Adam gave up.

The answer is that Adam repented after having given the 70 years of his life to King David, and he asked G-d to restore them to him. Although King David did not receive them, they were not returned to Adam. This is because it is forbidden for a person who has progressed spiritually to lower himself and regret his progress, for in that case he is liable to lose everything. With regards to Adam, if G-d had granted these years to David, Adam would have been spiritually elevated with every mitzvah that David performed. Nevertheless, G-d deprives no creature of his reward (Bava Kama 38b; Nazir 23b), and therefore Adam received the reward of his goodwill beforehand. What was this reward?

Commenting on the verse, “Now David was old, advanced in days” (I Kings 1:1), the Chida asks in Nahal Sorek why the text describes King David as being old and ba bayamim (“advanced in days”). After all, David was only 70 years old at the time. The Chida explains that he was loaded with the days of Adam, who had lived 1,000 years. In fact the last letters in the expression ba bayamim (“advanced in days”) form the name Adam. King David’s reward was therefore to have completed the years of Adam. In reality David’s age was composed of the years he had received from Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, as we mentioned earlier. Why did Isaac not bestow any of his years to David? It was because he personified the perfect burnt-offering (Bereshith Rabba 64:3), and his entire life was devoted to Hashem. This teaches us that augmenting one’s Torah study increases a person’s merit in this world and in the World to Come


The Torah: An Elixir of Life for this World and the World to Come
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