BREAKING THE TABLETS – Kee tisa, Ex. 30:11-34:35, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week we will encounter some of the Torah’s more challenging passages. Our reading opens with a unique process of registering for the draft – as each man age 20 or over hands in a half shekel, which is then counted, thus technically avoiding counting human beings.
Then come commandments about building the Tabernacle, and stressing the importance of Sabbath observance even though it interrupts work on this sacred project.
Next, Moses ascends the mountain to receive the Tablets of the Law, engraved by the Divine process which makes them legible from both sides – a miracle in itself, as witness letters like the final mem where the engraving is closed on all sides, yet the middle did not fall out! Heavy as those stone tablets must have been, Moses was able to carry them both.
Weary of waiting forty days for their leader to return, the people now pressure Aaron to make the Golden Calf. This first religious rebellion by the Israelites precipitates some violent results. Moses and Joshua are on their way down the mountain to bring the Tablets back to camp, when they see their people dancing around an idol – that aigel hazahav, the Golden Calf. Shocked and scandalized, Moses reacts by breaking the tablets.
Breaking the tablets??? After spending 40 days on the mountain top communicating directly with G-d? Moses, what are you doing? Aren’t those dancing Israelites the ones you did all this for? Don’t they obviously need the tablets to bring them to the true faith?
This surprising action called for explanation, and the Midrash provides it. Moses did not break the tablets on purpose, we are told. In fact he was able to carry them only because the Heavenly inscriptions supported them. In effect, the commandments were carrying the tablets. They floated. Moses only provided the direction. When faced with the sight of Israel’s idolatry, the letters flew off! Moses could no longer hold the huge rocks, which fell down the mountain and broke.
How many leaders face shocks that threaten them as the Golden Calf threatened Moses? From ancient times until today, an impatient public will dump long-term goals to grab some cheap pleasure. And we need not analyze Aaron’s role here; apparently his agonized brother credited him with merely buying time. Underlying the whole story we find a general failure of faith. Just a few weeks ago we were reading about the supernatural experience of an entire national group receiving its Divine message of identity at Mount Sinai. And here they are, ready to abandon that identity, to forget that message, to give up the destiny that Moses represents, to eat and drink and dance around a four-legged idol. In fact, they are celebrating their own rejection of their leader’s message.
What are our golden calves? Fame? Wealth? Privilege? Facing the choice between loyalty and live-it-up, how often do we go the wrong way? How often do those private choices, those dances around the Calf, damage our families? And that’s just in individual life. Multiplied by the millions, those choices produce social decay and political chaos.
Take one current example. Peace is a great goal, but it takes two serious opponents to make peace. Serious, and honest. When one side truly offers peace, and the other side responds with lies, international committees dance around the golden calf to celebrate a false treaty, and disaster can result.
This week and every week, the Golden Calf is there. If we aim for a bright future, let’s ignore that idol.