Etched in Stones

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha Ki-Tisa contains the epochal account of the greatest tragedy in Jewish History, the saga of the Golden Calf. This sin left an imprint on the Jewish People whose repercussions haunt us to this day. Ironically, this took place at what should have been a great moment for the Jewish People.

The Exodus from Egypt had been followed by the splitting of the Reed Sea and the miraculous destruction of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. The former slaves were victorious in the surprise war against the Amalekite Raiders and their “table in the wilderness” was secured with the miraculous Manna, which was accompanied by the Be’eir (Well) of Miriam.

The greatest moment of all was the gathering of the whole nation on Mt. Sinai to witness the entire mountain in fire and smoke and the superhuman sound of the Shofar. They all heard a voice from heaven proclaiming the Divine message of the “Ten Statements.” Chief among them was the command to believe in and worship the G-d who had taken them out of the land of Egypt. In addition, they were to utterly reject any and all forms of idolatry and “have no other gods in His Presence” (Shemot 20:2).

It is therefore safe to say that the construction of a golden calf might be the last thing one would expect to see. So how could such a thing happen? It seems that no one anticipated the psychological effects that would be generated by the prolonged absence of Moshe.

Apparently, the people attributed the totality of their relationship with Hashem to Moshe. They did not feel worthy, on their own accord, of the providential protection of Hashem. They did not believe that G-d would relate to ordinary humans, even those who strive to act with justice and wisdom. Furthermore, they had an overpowering feeling that they needed a physical object through which they could express their longings to serve Hashem.

Moshe was informed about the Golden Calf when he was atop Mt. Sinai, receiving the explanations of the Torah from Hashem. He was summarily informed that he should “go down, for your nation has behaved corruptly…” (Shemot 32:7).

All was seemingly lost. The newly redeemed society had committed a fatal error that ostensibly could not be rectified. Hashem’s plan for the redemption of mankind through the Torah would no longer be facilitated by the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Instead, Hashem would establish a new People who would descend from His faithful servant, Moshe.

However, Moshe was not tempted by this offer and eschewed all personal glory. Rather, he deciphered in Hashem’s words, “And now desist from Me and let My Anger flare against them and I Shall annihilate them…” (Shemot 32:10) an implication that if he, Moshe, persisted in his entreaties, he could indeed prevent the destruction of the Jewish People. He therefore proceeded to argue in their behalf.

In so doing, Moshe in no way sought to diminish or downplay the severity of what the Jews had done. No excuses could be proffered for such a gross violation of the fundamental basis of the Torah. Instead, he pointed to the consequences of the action that Hashem now contemplated.

Moshe, instead, considered how the nations of the world would interpret G-d’s obliteration of His People. They would, erroneously, attribute this devastation to some “shortcoming” in the Creator and not to the sinfulness of the Jews. The nations of the world would thereafter never be able to muster the appropriate awe and trust of Hashem; and thus, G-d’s plan for mankind would not be properly and completely fulfilled.

In addition, Moshe was skeptical about the viability of the “new” entity that G-d would fashion from him. If the nation that had been founded upon the three great Patriarchs couldn’t survive the encounter with Hashem’s wrath, how much less viable would be one that rested on only a single founder?

Moshe’s arguments and petitions were successful. “Hashem ‘Reconsidered’ the matter and rescinded what He had said He would Do to His People” (Shemot 32:14). Moshe, thereby, had secured the survival of the Jewish People.

He proceeded to descend the Mountain, carrying the “two Tablets of the Testimony” in his hand. These are what are known as the Aseret HaDibrot (Ten Statements) which express the basic Mitzvot that constitute the fundamental ideals of Judaism.

As every aspect of the Torah has a reason; I wonder why there had to be two Tablets. Was it a matter of practicality i.e., because physically one would be too cumbersome, or were there deeper factors at work?

I believe that the placement of the Statements on two separate stones contains a very significant lesson. The first five Dibrot (Statements) pertain to matters that are commonly known as “between man-and-G-d.” This is the area of personal religious beliefs and actions that do not involve others and affect only one's personal relationship with Hashem.

The other five Statements are referred to as “between man-and-man” and deal with proper behaviors towards individuals and society. These contain the prohibitions against murder, theft, adultery, false testimony and covetousness of one’s neighbor’s possessions. By placing these commandments on separate tablets, Judaism is teaching that the religiously perfected individual cannot restrict himself to just one aspect of righteous behavior.

Some people are very drawn to the social ideals and teachings of Judaism, such as loving one’s friend as oneself, practicing Chesed (loving-kindness) and helping whoever is in need. They believe that benefiting others constitutes the essence of religion and if one excels in these, he need not worry too much about Kashrut (kosher supervision), Tefilla (prayer), Shabbat observance and so forth. All that matters is that one should be a kindhearted person who is sensitive and compassionate to others.

And then there are strict religious personalities who are fully absorbed in the matters that are between them and G-d. They are extremely conscientious regarding kosher supervision, prayer, Tzitzit, Shabbat and Chagim (Festivals), Passover kosher supervision and so forth. And yet many of these people are not particularly interested in the area of relating to others. They expend the bulk of their energy in fervent prayer and meaningful Torah study, and do not display the same enthusiasm when it comes to improving society and contributing to the general welfare.

We learn from the fact that there are two Tablets of the Law that both are equally important, and that one cannot attain religious perfection by sticking to the area to which he is naturally attracted. He must seek to train himself in the activities for which he harbors no inclination as well.

The true perfection of man must involve his specific personal characteristics such as self-control, instinctual indulgence, love of truth and pursuit of wisdom. In these endeavors, he is being very selfish and doing things that primarily benefit and elevate himself. To do this is a great Mitzvah and Service of Hashem which is fully in line with Hillel's famous adage, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? (Avot 1:14)”

However, man is also a social being who can only thrive in the context of a just and benevolent society. One’s dealings with other humans should be rooted in the fact that we all possess a divine soul that differentiates us from animals. This means that we do to others as we would have them do to us. We overcome our selfish desires and act judiciously. We even go out of our way to help others, return their lost objects and come to their assistance when their car has broken down on the side of the road. All this comes under the rubric of, “And if I am for myself only, then what am I? (Avot 1:14)”

The roadmap for human perfection is etched on the two stones that Moshe brought down from Sinai. May we merit to fulfill them both.

Shabbat Shalom.

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