The tablets broke, the words remained

The tablets broke, the words remained


Shavuot marks the occasion of the giving of our Torah, an event like no other. Midrash Shemot Rabbah teaches:

When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, not one of the ofanim stirred, not one of the seraphim said “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.” The sea did not roar, creatures did not speak — the whole world was hushed into breathless silence; it was then that the voice went forth: “Anochi Adonai elohecha.

The people experienced awe, trepidation, exultation, and more.

However, the story doesn’t end there. After the giving of the Aseret haDibrot (the 10 sayings), Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. But the people became impatient. When Moses didn’t return when he was expected, the rumor spread that he was dead. So the people approached Aaron: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man, Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt; we do not know what has happened to him.”

Soon the people feasted and danced before the Golden Calf. When God sent Moses back to the camp and he saw the calf and the revelry, he threw the tablets to the ground, shattering them.

The Torah tells us Moses acted out of anger — we have ample evidence that Moses had a temper — but there are midrashim that offer other explanations. One suggests that Moses deliberately broke the tablets to destroy the evidence that Israel had been commanded not to make or worship idols. Another has Moses frozen in horror, letting the tablets slip from his grasp.

My favorite comes from Tanhuma. When God gave Moses the tablets, they carried themselves (seeming weightless to the octogenarian Moses). However, when he approached the camp and saw the calf, the writing on the tablets flew off, and the blank stones became too heavy for Moses to carry.

Fortunately, once Moses saw to it that the ringleaders were punished and he calmed down, he convinced God not to destroy the people as God had threatened. As a sign of forgiveness, God gave Moses a second set of tablets. The Torah says, “The Lord said to Moses: Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets that you shattered.”

The Shem MiShmuel (Rabbi Samuel Bornstein, 1856-1926, Poland) points out something interesting about this verse:

The luhot, the tablets, were, after all, only material such as stone and rock, which was plentiful on Sinai. Once a material substance breaks, it cannot be mended or repaired as if it had never been broken. However, the contents, the words, can be exactly the same. Matter and form change as time goes on, but meaning and ideas remain the same — are, indeed, eternal. Thus, the tablets can only be like the first, whereas the words are exactly the same.

On Shavuot, we remember that no matter how much our material circumstances change — where we live, how we travel, the structure of our society, the technology we employ — the words of Torah are eternal. The new questions we ask — Are genetically engineered foods kosher? Is it possible to constitute a minyan over the Internet? May one agree to be an organ donor? — reflect our changing world, but we still find our answers in the eternal words of Torah.


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