Dvar Torah delivered on Friday evening 3/9/12

Thoughts on Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35)

Most of you are probably familiar with the custom of kissing a Jewish prayer book or sacred text upon picking it up if it has accidentally fallen to the ground.   Actually, there are a number of similar pious customs associated with all Jewish texts that include God’s name in Hebrew within them:

1) Not putting it directly on the ground

2) Not piling it underneath other books of lesser sanctity  (There is a pecking order here: Tanakh is above Siddur)

3) Kissing the book upon closing it when you finish consulting it.

Yet, I can recall that when I was a kid going to Orthodox Hebrew school in Brooklyn there were a few times when I purposely smashed a chumash on the ground and didn’t kiss it upon picking it up.  I did it to prove to myself that lighting wasn’t going to strike as a result.   And, of course, it didn’t.

Well, that’s youthful immaturity for you.  Nowadays, I understand that such pious customs are not magical talismans but rather mnemonic devices.  Observing customs like kissing a dropped chumash when we pick it up serves to remind us of the profundity and importance of the ideas that the book contains. 

I would imagine that many of us “act out” from time to time in similar ways --- challenging conventional received wisdom until we can sort out for ourselves what really makes sense.  The bottom line being that we should use the rituals to access the ideals, rather than worshipping the ritual objects themselves.

Perhaps that’s what is going on when Moses hurls the tablets of the law to the ground in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa.  He has been up on the mountain for forty days and nights receiving God’s teachings.  He now descends from the mountain carrying two tablets carved by God, and inscribed with God’s writing.  But when Moses encounters the spectacle of the people worshipping an idol, a calf made of gold, he hurls the tablets to the ground, smashing them into pieces.

The late 19th to early 20th century commentator Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen writes in his commentary Meshekh Chochma that Moses smashed the tablets because “[h]e feared that [the Israelites] would deify them as they had done the calf.”  (Nechama Leibowitz: New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, part II, Aryeh Newman, translator, p. 613)

Or, to put it in other words, Moses feared that the tablets might themselves become objects of idolatry. 

Indeed, the sages of the Talmud assert that God approved of Moses’s actions, exclaiming  “Yasher Koach (More power to you), for having broken them!” (Shabbat 87a)

Why was God so pleased with Moses’ action of smashing the tablets?  It wasn’t just that Moses had found a way of teaching the people not to resort to idolatry.  In the midrash collection  Avot de Rabi Natan (c. 700-900 C.E.), Moses’s act of breaking the first set of tablets is portrayed as an act of solidarity with the people in that, in essence, he was ripping up the contract before the people could be held responsible for breaching it. 

After the traumatic episodes of the Golden Calf, the breaking of the tablets, and the civil war and plague that follow, Moses seeks reassurance from God, and God responds in the famous passage about the shelosh esray midot – the 13 divine qualities.  This famous passage, beginning with the words “Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanun”/ “The Eternal, The Eteranal, a gracious and compassionate God”  (Ex. 34: 6-7), which we read in Parshat Ki Tisa, is also included in the special prayers and readings for the Days of Awe and the major Festivals.

God also reassures Moses through the giving of the second set of tablets.  This time around, the words on the tablets are still God’s – the content is the same --- but one thing is different.  This time it is Moses, not God, who carves the tablets from the stone. This change reminds us that an effective covenant requires the mutual involvement and teamwork of both parties.  The best agreements, the best relationships, the best learning environments --- require interaction.

In modern life, that’s what democracy is – or at least ought to be – about.  It should be about empowering all people to be part of the process.  Beware of attempts, whether by proposed constitutional amendments or otherwise, to shut disadvantaged or unpopular groups out of the political process or out of the mainstream of society.

Yasher Koach to all who are willing to break down such barriers, as Moses broke those tablets.

Shabbat shalom.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg, 2012/5772 

Posted on March 13, 2012 .