ויהי כאשר קרב אל המחנה וירא את העגל ומחולות, ויחר אף משה וישלך מידיו את הלוחות וישבר אותם תחת ההר
(שמות לב, יט)
The story of the exodus of the People of Israel from Egypt is reaching its denouement: the giving of the Torah. Moshe just spent 40 days and nights with God and is on his way down the mountain to give the Torah, the two tablets, to the People. When he sees what the People are up to – dancing around a golden calf and calling it God – this is what happens:
And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount (Shemot 32, 10)
Imagine the shock. Today, should a Torah scroll fall to the floor, a jarring jolt of horror strikes the congregation (and in certain conditions, we need to fast). So Moshe breaking the actual tablets written in the hand of God seems be an act beyond belief, a surreal image. What brought Moshe to commit such an unbelievable deed?
The Midrashim offer three different explanations:
1. Moshe wanted to protect the People of Israel. The Midrash likens the covenant between God and Israel to a betrothal. So by breaking the tablets, Moshe avoids Israel being punished as a married woman (eshet ish) who has strayed. The same idea is conveyed by another famous Midrashic saying: מוטב יהיו שוגגין ואל יהיו מזידין. By not knowing the law, Israel would be erring in practicing idolatry, but at least they would not be performing a sin willfully, out of knowledge.
2. Moshe is frustrated. With the culmination of his efforts in Egypt and in the desert rendered to nothing, one can understand the irritation and the need to vent anger. The Midrash brings opposing views as to whether God agreed to or rejected this behaviour of Moshe, but regardless of His acceptance, Moshe’s act was one borne out of pure disappointment.
3. God commanded Moshe. A diametrically opposed view in the Midrash has God commanding Moshe to break the tablets, as it is inconceivable for a human being, even Moshe, to decide by himself to destroy God’s word. Certainly not as a frustrated act in a moment of anger.
These are all acceptable explanations of Moshe’s breaking the tablets. But there remains a fundamental question: how do we reconcile the view that Moshe acted of his own accord (whether out of anger or to protect the People of Israel) with the view that it is not possible for a human being to perform such an act without God’s permission? Why did Moshe not get punished for breaking the tablets?
Another Midrash offers us a way to solve this question. The writing on the tablets was God’s writing, and the letters hang miraculously in the air so that the commandments could be read from both sides of the stones. When Moshe saw the sin of the golden calf, the letters “flew away” from the tablets and vanished. All Moshe was holding now was a pair of empty stones. One explanation is that Moshe lost all strength while witnessing the People of Israel sinning, and the empty tablets simply fell from his hands.
But I prefer another explanation. After the letters vanished, the tablets were nothing but stone. Devoid of the word of God, they were devoid of any holiness. Moshe breaks the tablets willfully and in anger, but in doing so he is not breaking the word of God; he is merely casting down a pair of empty, worthless stones. With God having removed Himself as a result of the People’s unwillingness to accept the Torah, there is no kedushah (holiness) left.
This is a great lesson for us. God’s presence and holiness are there only if we act properly and earn our right to deserve them. Kissing barren stones in the hope their supposed holiness will protect us, rather than working on improving our ways (which is much harder!), is an act devoid of any religious meaning.
This idea for this Torah Thought is from R. Lichtenstein.