Give me a break

Sometimes you have to follow Plan B

By: Aron Ziegler

Rather amazingly, the verses in the Chumash which instruct us about the festival of Shavuot do not state that it is the festival commemorating the giving of the Torah. Instead, the Torah refers to Shavuot as, alternatively, the “festival of the harvest of the first fruits (Bikurei) of your labour”[1]; “festival of weeks…the first (- Bikurei) wheat harvest”[2]; or “(The holy convocation of) Bikurim” – ‘First fruits’ or “first offerings”[3]. Although there is what to debate[4], nevertheless tradition has us refer to Shavuot in our prayers and in kiddush as ‘the occasion of the giving of our Torah’.

Perhaps, a reason it is not explicitly stated in the Torah as being the festival commemorating the giving of the Torah could be that this first giving of the Torah and related revelation event that we celebrate on Shavuot did not conclude as honourably as we would have liked. Therefore, the Torah chose not to emphasise its relationship with the events at Har Sinai, but rather to highlight the festival as being a commemoration of the sacrificing of the first fruits of the new year’s wheat crop. This could also perhaps be a reason why we defer the festive day explicitly titled ‘Simchas Torah’ to later in our calendar, soon after Yom Kippur, which is when Moshe finally descended from Har Sinai with the intact second Tablets.

The Shavuot ‘occasion of the giving of our Torah’ did not immediately accomplish a successful ‘giving of Torah’ from Heaven. Forty days later when Moshe came down from the mountain we were involved in worshipping the golden calf idol. Moshe proceeded to smash the two stone tablets he had been given by Hashem, which represented the Torah-contract Hashem had made with the Jewish people. This cancelled the giving of the Torah. Hashem had given it to Moshe and Moshe instead of giving it on to the Nation – smashed the tablets. It was only after a further lengthy period of many more days and nights of prayer and supplication on Har Sinai that Hashem instructed Moshe to carve for himself a new second set of stone tablets and bring them up the mountain where Hashem would rewrite onto them the words that were on the first ones.

But, in truth, if we consider Moshe’s breaking of the tablets – we find that Hashem did not instruct Moshe at any stage to go ahead and break them. Surely then this was very big initiative for him to take on his own?!

If we consider this event of the receiving of the tablets in a universal context, we can point out that the world had been void of Torah for more than nearly two and a half thousand years. There was hardly a trace of Divinity in the world ever since Adam had been exiled from Gan Eden. Only select individuals had retained and developed some connection to the True God. And now Hashem Himself introduces Himself to the entire Jewish Nation “I am Hashem your God…” and gives Moshe two stone tablets from heaven, personally engraved by Hashem. These tablets would be (excuse the term) the ‘holy grail’ of all religions, archaeologists, scientists, historians, etc, etc, the most precious and rarest objects in the entire universe! And, no sooner as they are put in Moshe’s hands, does he destroy them. Surely a different outcome would have been better. Perhaps, Moshe could have kept them locked away for a while until the people had repented and earned forgiveness for their sin of the golden calf, or, perhaps, Moshe could just share them with some of the more deserving members of nation, etc? Why would Moshe totally destroy them and seem to wish that this ‘giving of the Torah’ event at Har Sinai be entirely cancelled? Should the world go on forever without Hashem’s Torah?

The Talmud[5] tells us that, upon descending the mountain and seeing the nation involved with the idolatrous worship of the golden calf, Moshe reasoned the following: ‘Since with regard to the Pesach lamb sacrifice, which is just a single one of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvahs, the Torah declares[6] “any stranger (including a Jew who has estranged himself from Judaism, an apostate) shall not partake of it”, so certainly, in regard to the tablets, which represent the entire Torah – all the more so are (apostate Jews) not worthy of partaking from the whole entire Torah (the nation being involved with the idolatry having the status of ‘estranged Jews’). So Moshe took hold of the tablets and smashed them. (The Talmud goes on to show us that indeed Hashem did ultimately express His approval of Moshe’s choice of action.)

Rabbi Shimon Shkop offers an insight[7] to suggest a rationale as to why Moshe saw it fit to destroy the Tablets and actually cancel this first ‘giving of the Torah’.

Rabbi Shkop is elaborating on the understanding we have that Hashem’s purpose for us in the world is for us to emulate Hashem and go in His ways. This is already hinted to at the very beginning of the Torah at the creation of man, where the Torah tells us[8] Hashem made man ‘in His Own image and likeness’. He explains that this is the attitude we all should have towards the personal skills and abilities which have been bestowed upon each of us. Just as Hashem has bestowed good to each of us and to the universe, so too we should emulate him and use the abilities and resources we have to better life for other people and improve the world. Hashem brings good to the world in His infinite Divine way and we must bring good to the world with our mortal abilities.

With whatever an individual has personally been blessed, if he uses his free will and chooses to share it with others and the world then Hashem looks at him as having been a good investment where He had bestowed resources and gifts. Hashem will then proceed to increase the resources and blessings to this individual so that he can continue to further improve Hashem’s world by spreading goodness around and sharing it even more.

Rabbi Shkop illustrates this principle form various sources: for example regarding wealth. The Talmud[9] expounds from the expression[10] “you shall surely tithe” that if one gives his tithes it will bring him wealth, and so it is assured to us in the prophecy of Malachi[11], “Bring the tithe… and test Me now by this – says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you blessing more than for what you have space”. When Hashem sees that the resources he gives to us are shared with others in the form of tithes, etc, He gets nachas from us and He will give us more and more to be able to share out and spread goodness throughout His world.

So too, explains Rabbi Shkop, does this arrangement apply to Torah knowledge. If a person shares and spreads knowledge of Hashem and His Torah with others in a way that promotes the good reputation of Hashem– so Hashem increases his ability to comprehend and understand more and more of His Holy Torah, so that he can go on improving the world with knowledge of Hashem.

He suggests this could be an explanation of what Rabbi Chanina said[12]: ‘Much I learned from my teachers, even more from my colleagues, and more than all of them I learned the most from my students’. Since Rabbi Chanina was spending his time and effort in bettering the lives and knowledge of others by studying with them and teaching them from the little knowledge that Hashem gave him at first just from his teachers – so by discussing and sharing with his colleagues he was granted more knowledge and because he taught and gave over from his knowledge to his students – Hashem blessed him with even more knowledge.

But, how does a person start and initially merit to receive Torah from Above that he can then go on to share and use to improve the world? Torah is not a natural presence in our world. The world existed for many centuries without Torah before it was given at Har Sinai. The Talmud[13] says that the world existed for two thousand years in a stage of emptiness, ie without Torah (the Torah only officially being given in the year 2448 (1312 BCE), 3330 years ago. No one is born with natural Torah knowledge, so how do we begin?

The Torah tells us that the starting point for a person who wants to connect with Torah is – he should come and toil in it[14]. We see that there is hard work involved in obtaining Torah; it does not come easily to us mortals. The Torah has been given, but “the crown of Torah is left for anyone who wishes to come and partake”[15]. Torah doesn’t jump into one’s mind on its own, a person needs to toil and labour for it. In fact in Pirkei Avoth (6:6) we are given a list of 48 requirements that one needs to be able to acquire Torah.

So, again, why would Moshe want to totally destroy these most precious tablets now that finally after 2448 years Hashem had given His treasured Torah to the world?

Moshe recognised what he considered to be a very serious problem. If this Torah – the first tablets would be brought and given over to the world – the Torah could be openly and fully accessed by anyone who came to study it. Since Hashem had bestowed this gift of Torah to the world, it would become fully accessible to one and all and even the uncouth and harmful people of the world could get their hands on the Divine knowledge. This is known from the verse[16] that describes the engraving on the first set of stone tablets: “And the tablets were the work of Hashem, and the writing was Hashem’s writing, engraved upon the tablets”. Rabbi Eliezer says[17] that this verse teaches us that had the first tablets not been broken, the Torah would never have been forgotten from the Jewish people. Meaning, that the wording or message and the engraved stones themselves of those first tablets had such power and were imbued with Divine force that if a person would be exposed to them and learn them even just once – they would be remembered and known forever. The very stones of the first tablets – ie the ‘pages’ that held down the heavenly letters of the Torah – were the work of G-d and, as such, they were absolutely perfect in anchoring the letters and knowledge of Torah to a most thorough and exhaustive level. And, since the Torah of the first tablets was of this type of ‘engraving’, this would cause the Torah of the first tablets to ‘engrave’ itself in a permanent way and remain forever in the memory of anyone who ever studied it, to such an extent that it would never become forgotten.

If Moshe was going to bring down this level of Torah to a resolute and unwavering Jewish nation, firmly aligned and loyal to Hashem and His mitzvahs, that would have been appropriate. But, since we had so soon betrayed our duties and strayed after the golden calf, Moshe understood that these tablets and their openly accessible Torah was not what Hashem would want in His world. Having all types of people, even the deviant, wicked, and nasty people being well versed, knowledgeable, and full custodians of His Divine knowledge would be detrimental to Hashem’s world. This could result in the greatest desecration of Hashem’s reputation and of His world, a world where corrupt, repugnant people who behave in all sorts of disgraceful ways could be experts in all realms of Divine knowledge and could go about harming others and wreaking havoc. This would be a most horrendous chillul Hashem (desecration of Hashem’s name). It would appear as if the Divine knowledge and Torah wisdom sanctions or even promotes harm and evil to be inflicted against one’s fellow and advocates an unpleasant, nasty existence. Therefore, Moshe decided that he must use his free will to improve Hashem’s world for His ultimate good and must prevent this kind of easily obtainable, thorough, and permanent understanding of divine Torah from becoming accessible.

So Moshe took the initiative and smashed these first tablets, eradicating the possibility for unworthy people to have free unbridled access to the depths of the Divine Torah.

Moshe knew that the appropriate type of Torah that would be best for Hashem’s reputation in His world and best for us was a Torah that necessitated sincerity and other qualifying parameters in the recipient before he could be bestowed with a Godly associated status and become worthy of being a Torah person in Hashem’s world. Only then, once a good measure of God-like qualities had been cultivated by the person’s own volition, should Hashem’s holy Torah begin to settle and become imprinted and engraved on the person’s heart. As there is where it can merge with the very core being of the individual and the two characters (of Hashem and the person’s choosing to embody an emulation of Hashem) can unite.

In order to bring down such a Torah to the world, Moshe Rabbeinu then had to go and exert himself, carving out his own stone tablets, and become worthy of receiving and bringing down a Torah of this second kind. This is what Hashem told[18] him, “Carve out for yourself two tablets of stone like the first ones… which you broke”. Just like those first perfect Divinely made stone tablets, you should now replicate them on your own by your own carving and effort. Hashem then says, “I will write on those tablets the (same) words which were on the first tablets which you broke” – and, by the way, Yasher Koach (well done) for breaking the first set[19]. Once Moshe had personally achieved this, he could then go on to teach and train us in how we can self-carve and mould ourselves and our hearts into shiny polished tablets onto which Hashem could write His Holy Torah.

The second tablets or ‘pages’ for the Torah were man-made, by the toil and labour of Moshe’s own carving. These ‘pages’ therefore are only able to hold down and support the Divine script in accordance with the strength and quality with which they are prepared. The stronger, smoother, and more refined the tablet the better the message can be recorded and the clearer the writing shines. It is up to the recipient to prepare his heart and hold it open, wide, and clear to the Divine Scribe if he wants to carry Hashem’s Torah. And, it also follows that, in accordance with his on-going care and maintenance of the panels of his heart will the script shine or fade, either being readable and enlightening to others and the world, ever sought after and followed, or being confused, incoherent and off-putting, and ever ridiculed even discarded.

If the world would have access to the first tablets – ‘Divine workings of God’ – we would find the Holy Divine Torah with people who do not appropriately represent all that is good, noble, and sacred about Hashem. But, now that that type of Torah is inaccessible to the world, Hashem’s reputation is safe, as Hashem’s True Torah will only settle and reside in the hearts of beings who have earnestly toiled and laboured to make the ‘luchos’ (panels of their hearts) receptive to the type of Torah that Moshe brought down by his own carving out of those second tablets – a Torah that is lit up and glows bright in those who host it sincerely and which crumbles and shatters in those who don’t.

The implementation of one’s free choice via the toil, labour, and hard work of chiselling away at one’s heart of stone and refining and polishing one’s middos and character until it mirrors the Divine Goodness of bettering the lives’ of others and the world is the purpose of Hashem’s ‘Project Creation’ – where He can have a home in our lower worlds.[20] And by doing this we make the ‘tablets’ of our hearts fitting and ready for Hashem to rewrite his Holy Torah onto them and we bring down Hashem and His Torah (which are one) into ourselves where He can ‘dwell within us’.[21]

“’Before the Torah was given to Yisrael, Moshe had to go up to Hashem’[22]; once the Torah was successfully given to the Jews, Hashem instructed Moshe, ‘They should make me a sanctuary so that I may dwell within them’”[23] Hashem wants us to ‘Remember the Torah of Moshe My servant’[24], the Torah which Moshe brought down for us. We would do well to remember the lesson that he taught and to learn from him.

  1. Shemos 23:16
  2. Shemos 34:22
  3. Vayikra 23:17
  4. See Shabbas 86-88
  5. Shabbas 87a
  6. Shemos 12:43 and see Rashi there
  7. See introduction to Sha’arei Yoshor
  8. Bereishis 1:27
  9. Ta’anis 9a
  10. Devarim 14:22
  11. 3:10
  12. Ta’anis 7a
  13. Avoda Zara 9a
  14. See Vayikra 26:3, Rashi from Sifra
  15. Yoma 72b, see also Rambam – Hilchos Talmud Torah 4:1
  16. Shemos 32:16
  17. Eruvin 54a
  18. Shemos 34:1
  19. Shabbas 87a
  20. See Tanchuma Naso 16 (also Tanya 33)
  21. See Shemos 25:8
  22. Shemos 19:3
  23. Medrash Rabbah Shemos 33:7 brought at the very end of Sefer Nefesh HaChaim
  24. Malachi 3:22

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