This was a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2009.
In this week’s parashah we find high drama as Moses comes down from his 40 day stay atop Mount Sinai carrying shnai loochot ha-aydoot – two tablets of the covenant – loochot even – tablets of stone – k’tooveem b’etzba eloheem – inscribed with writing from the finger of Almighty. You know what happens next. As it says in the text, “The ETERNAL spoke to Moses: ‘Hurry down, for your people — note that now it’s your people, not my people — whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves an egel masecha — a molten calf, and they have bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'”
And then comes one of my favorite phrases of divine exasperation. God tells Moses, “Am k’shay oref hu. I see that this is a stiff-necked people.” God tells Moses that God is considering destroying the Israelites, and Moses quickly pleads on their behalf, ultimately succeeding in persuading God to give them another chance. And then Moses turned and journeyed down that mountain, carrying the shnai loochot, the two stone tablets which were, according to the text, inscribed on both sides with the direct writing of God.
When Moses finally arrived near the camp and saw the people reveling in idol worship and other lewd behaviors, he hurled the stone tablets from his hands and shattered them – v’yeeshbor otam – at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the golden calf made out of their jewelry and coins and burned it. Then he had it ground into powder, mixed into water, and he made the Israelites drink it.
By the time we get towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, we are reading about Moses and the Jewish people’s second chance at the encounter with God at Mount Sinai. Chapter 34 of Exodus begins with the words p’sal lecha shnai loochot avanim ka-reeshonim — God says to Moses, “Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones.” P’sal the verb that means “carve” and “lecha” means for yourself. This is the beginning of Moses’ second journey up the mountain. This time he will bring stone tablets that he has carved himself (God had created the first set), and he will return with the text of the commandments and the covenant, bringing these sacred words to a more sobered people.
Rabbis over the centuries have taken a close look at this second set of tablets – the tablets we actually received, and through midrashic lenses they found many possible deeper lessons in the Torah’s account of this cosmic do-over. Some of the sages looked at this phrase, “p’sal lecha,” and considered how the Hebrew verb p’sal — to carve — could be read in different ways and offer up different meanings. One tradition states that the phrase, “p’sal lecha,” “carve for yourself,” actually hints at a different meaning. Instead of God saying to Moses, “carve for yourself” these two new stone tablets, if you read instead of the Hebrew word p’sal the related word pesolet, which means “leftovers,” then what you end up with is God saying to Moses, “the leftovers are for you.” What leftovers is God talking about? This midrash teaches that God was referring to the leftover bits and pieces of the highly valuable stone material that the first set of tablets were made up of. As God carved the letters into that first holy set of tablets, little bits and pieces of the stone fell onto the ground, and, according to this midrash, God told Moses to scoop them up and keep them, and sell them. The midrash says that Moses did just that, and in fact became very wealthy in the process! But then the sages add that Moses, being Moses, didn’t care for the wealth or need it.
That’s a fairly playful midrash. Other rabbis saw another way to interpret this idea that the “chips, or leftovers” are yours. Looking at these chips of stone differently – looking at them more as refuse than as valuable gemstones, the Hasidic tradition developed an entirely different teaching from these words of Torah. The scraps and bits of stone become symbols of humanity’s mistakes, its wrongdoings – in religious language, our sins. The Hasidim went on to teach that these words suggest that whatever “chips” or sins that a person might observe in others – he or she should take on the ethical practice of first looking at those “chips” as if they are his or hers as well, and search him or herself out for the same faults. The chips aren’t just someone else’s – the chips are also yours.
One last thought to share tonight. Rabbis and students of the bible have been fascinated for centuries with the moment in which Moses explodes and hurls the stone tablets, carved and written by the hands of God, as it were. We shudder on a certain level to think that even despite his overwhelming emotions, Moses would dare to shatter an object so holy as those tablets. And yet he did, and, as one recent commentator whose name I regret I’ve forgotten stated, the Torah doesn’t state that God ever criticized Moses for destroying the sacred tablets. Remember, as our rabbis over the centuries looked at this moment in Torah, they were coming from the perspective that one should tenderly bury even a scrap of paper that had certain Hebrew names of God written upon it. Smash the sacred tablets? Why didn’t a lightning bolt immediately flash and turn Moses into a heap of ash? Why didn’t the ground open up or the mountain explode? And what did God think of this flash of temper by Moses?
One tradition found in the Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, actually teaches that not only did God refrain from criticizing Moses for this act of destruction, but God actually thought well of it. The sages again, with their penchant for plays on words in the Torah’s Hebrew, explain their reasoning to us. They wrote, “And how do we know that the Holy One, blessed be God, gave approval for what Moses did with the first set of tablets? Because in the passage where God says to Moses, “p’sal lecha shnai loochot,” — “carve for yourself two stone tablets,” the verse actually ends with the words “two stone tablets like the first ones that you shattered.” In the Hebrew, the phrase, “that you shattered” is asher sheebarta. The Talmudic rabbi known as Resh Lakish reasoned that the word asher sounds an awful lot like the common expression yasher, as in yasher koach, which essentially means “way to go!” or “good job” in Hebrew. So really, what the words “that you shattered” are trying to teach is that God actually said “carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones, and yasher koach – way to go – that you shattered them!”
Yasher koach is kind of the rabbinic equivalent of a high five. It also happens to be the customary phrase that people in synagogue say after someone has finished their d’var Torah, so I’ll take my cue and simply say, Shabbat shalom.