Breaking and restoring the Tablets--a midrashic and modern approach

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Parshat Eikev

I love Devarim. The Book of Deuteronomy is filled with pithy lessons, with inspiration, with hope and with opportunity. Moses is reminding the people of their responsibilities, but also teaching them new laws. While he repeats dozens of laws from the first four books, many are unique to this sefer, this book. In Parshat Eikev, we have the second paragraph from the Shema, which reminds us, much like the rest of the parsha that actions have consequences. While some get stuck on God intervening directly in the world, with reward and punishment in this life, I do want to highlight that the paragraph is written in the plural, not the singular. Even as God may judge us individually on Rosh Hashanah, day to day, it seems to be a more collective affair. One of the central lessons of Deuteronomy is that our choices matter, that our lives matter, that we matter.

Of all the inspirational moments of the parsha, I want to focus on Moshe’s recollection of the restoration of the Aseret HaDibrot and the Tablets of the Covenant. Deuteronomy Chapter 10
בָּעֵ֨ת הַהִ֜וא אָמַ֧ר י-ה-ֹו-ה אֵלַ֗י פְּסׇל־לְךָ֞ שְׁנֵֽי־לוּחֹ֤ת אֲבָנִים֙ כָּרִ֣אשֹׁנִ֔ים וַעֲלֵ֥ה אֵלַ֖י הָהָ֑רָה וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ לְּךָ֖ אֲר֥וֹן עֵֽץ׃
Thereupon Hashem said to me, “Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood.

וְאֶכְתֹּב֙ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת אֶ֨ת־הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָי֛וּ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֥ת הָרִאשֹׁנִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר שִׁבַּ֑רְתָּ וְשַׂמְתָּ֖ם בָּאָרֽוֹן׃
I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.”

וָאַ֤עַשׂ אֲרוֹן֙ עֲצֵ֣י שִׁטִּ֔ים וָאֶפְסֹ֛ל שְׁנֵי־לֻחֹ֥ת אֲבָנִ֖ים כָּרִאשֹׁנִ֑ים וָאַ֣עַל הָהָ֔רָה וּשְׁנֵ֥י הַלֻּחֹ֖ת בְּיָדִֽי׃
I made an ark of acacia wood and carved out two tablets of stone like the first; I took the two tablets with me and went up the mountain.

וַיִּכְתֹּ֨ב עַֽל־הַלֻּחֹ֜ת כַּמִּכְתָּ֣ב הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן אֵ֚ת עֲשֶׂ֣רֶת הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּר֩ י-ה-ֹו-ה אֲלֵיכֶ֥ם בָּהָ֛ר מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵ֖שׁ בְּי֣וֹם הַקָּהָ֑ל וַיִּתְּנֵ֥ם י-ה-ֹו-ה אֵלָֽי׃
After inscribing on the tablets the same text as on the first—the Ten Commandments that י-ה-ֹו-ה addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly— י-ה-ֹו-ה gave them to me.

וָאֵ֗פֶן וָֽאֵרֵד֙ מִן־הָהָ֔ר וָֽאָשִׂם֙ אֶת־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת בָּאָר֖וֹן אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשִׂ֑יתִי וַיִּ֣הְיוּ שָׁ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוַּ֖נִי י-ה-ֹו-ה ׃
Then I left and went down from the mountain, and I deposited the tablets in the ark that I had made, where they still are, as י-ה-ֹו-ה had commanded me.

After reminding the Israelites of their sins, Moses reminds them of God’s power of forgiveness. It is a lesson that all of us need regular reminding of. Talmud Menachot 99a:12 teaches an important lesson about this second ark and second set of tablets. It teaches us of the holiness of each individual, that aging and memory loss should not change how we treat others.
§ Having mentioned the principle that one does not downgrade in matters of sanctity, the Gemara cites a related issue. The verse states: “At that time the Lord said to me: Hew for yourself two tablets of stone like the first…And I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke, and you shall put them in the Ark” (Deuteronomy 10:1–2). Rav Yosef teaches a baraita: This verse teaches that both the tablets of the Covenant and the pieces of the broken tablets are placed in the Ark. One should learn from here that with regard to a Torah scholar who has forgotten his Torah knowledge due to circumstances beyond his control, e.g., illness, one may not behave toward him in a degrading manner. Although the first tablets were broken it is prohibited to treat them with disrespect, due to their sanctity. A Torah scholar who forgot the Torah knowledge he once possessed is likened to these broken tablets.

I find this interpretation a beautiful reminder that we carry within us all of our life, our experiences. Even when we cannot access them they remain with us. Whether forgiving ourselves for forgetting or respecting those who have forgotten, these tablets are a positive example for who we can be and how we can live our lives

Continuing the focus on the tablets, there is a significant difference between the first and second—and I’m not speaking of the differences in language between the versions. I’m speaking of their physical composition. If we look back to Exodus, to the creation of the first set of tablets, we would find that they were created entirely by the Divine. Moses had only to receive them. He had no participation in their creation. This time around, the world is different. The people are different. Moses is different. God realizes that for the people to accept the commands, they need at least some say in the matter. Numerous commentators look at this moment and wonder what exactly changed between the first and second set.

Benjamin Sommer, PROFESSOR OF BIBLE AND ANCIENT SEMITIC LANGUAGES at JTS questions who wrote the second set of tablets, showing conflicting information in Exodus. He writes:

It is understandable that scholars debate who actually wrote the second tablets. The Book of Exodus seems not to intend us to come to a conclusion; had it so intended, it could have phrased itself with a level of clarity easily achievable within the norms of Hebrew grammar and syntax. We ought not strive, then, for a level of clarity that scripture denies us. Rather, we should recognize that the description of the second tablets—the tablets actually given to the Israelites—fits a pattern of ambiguity that also appeared in Parashat Yitro (in Exodus 19–20 and 24), which similarly hints at both active and passive roles for Moses and the Israelites.

The Book of Exodus wants us to realize that human beings participated in the creation of the Torah. But it does not want us to be too sure about how far that participation extended. It teaches us that the authority behind the commands that came from Sinai is divine, and thus that all Jews are required to observe Jewish law. But it also suggests that, to some degree, observant Jews of each generation, like those at Sinai, can participate in writing the law. It is in the tension between these two views of tradition and change that the most authentic and ancient form of Judaism dwells.

Here in Deuteronomy, Moses seems to be more straightforward. His remembrance is that he carved the tablets and God inscribed them. Yet, the debate shows us the power of humanity. It reminds us of one of my core understandings of Judaism, that we are God-wrestlers, the people Israel, the ones who strive to live in accordance with our traditions and to live in this world.

How does that work in past and present? The 18th century Moroccan Rabbi and commentator, Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar wrote in his Or HaChaim on Deuteronomy 10:1:1
בעת ההיא אמר ה׳ אלי, "At that time G'd said to me: 'hew for yourself,' etc." Seeing that the materials for the first Tablets were G'd-made as opposed to the raw material being provided by Moses, and that after the episode of the golden calf the Israelites were no longer worthy of such Tablets, G'd told Moses to hew them out of materials that the Israelites were able to relate to, instead of G'd providing supernatural materials unfamiliar to the people which they were unable to relate to and to esteem properly.

Rabbi Hayyim shows us that we need that interaction. To truly understand the Torah, we have to see it as part of us. It cannot be too othered, too distant from our hearts and souls, but even its creation is part of us. We need to have some ownership of Torah. It is not a dusty book on a shelf or even the majestic scroll in the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, but the words that we so dearly love.

Rabbi Rene Pfertzel, a contemporary British rabbi quoted
Midrash Rabbah (Shemot 46: 1) gives a first explanation. God said to Moses, “do not be distressed over the First Tablets which contained only the Ten Commandments. In the Second Tablets I am giving you, you will also have Halachah, Midrash and Aggadah”. In other words, both sets of tablets represent different stages of Revelation: it is a progressive process. The first tablets were written only by God. For the second, Moses and God were partners: God said, cut two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on the words that were on the first” (Exodus 34: 1). Our relationships with God is one of partnership and collaboration.

How do we ensure that we are partners in Torah and in life? To do that we have to be in regular contact with both! We need to set aside time to study. We need to set aside time for prayer, for meditation, for connecting to God. AND we need to make sure that we are transforming that connection into action. Each is enriched by the other.

I was talking recently with a rabbinic colleague who is a modern Orthodox rabbi. We were talking about the challenges and blessings of our communities. I said while the successful communal life of much of the Orthodox world inspires me, I could not compromise on egalitarianism. Even when it has caused challenges for for me—my apologies to the male Cohanim or Leviim who felt slighted when we decided that both men and women could have the first two aliyot—I feel very strongly that men and women are equal. I believe that while our bodies may not be identical, our capacity for leadership, our intelligence, our humanity are entirely the same.

A sermon for another day is how do we look at Torah, love our Torah, live our Torah AND acknowledge that much of Biblical literature is highly focused on the male experience. That is a struggle that remains present for me! In preparing for this Shabbat, I looked at numerous sources. Online the readily available Jewish sources were almost exclusively from men. In my office I have books of “Women’s Torah Commentary” yet none of the ones I looked at specifically addressed the issue of the Second Set of Tablets in Deuteronomy. Women’s voices are being heard, are being taught, are being shared, but they remain less available or common in our tradition.

As we look at the week to come, I pray that your struggles are holy ones. I pray that they inspire you to see how we can partner with God to build a better world and to continually, incrementally improve ourselves.

Video version: Begin at 2:07