Our parasha begins innocuously enough—Moshe is still alone with God on the mountain, while his assistant Yehoshua waits down below. The Covenant has been signed and witnessed, and the Tablets of Witness carved out, ready to be taken down the mountain in triumph. Only a few details remain of the instruction that he is to bring down to the people—a few more details on building the Mishkan, a few ritual matters.
But meanwhile, things in the camp of the Israelites are deteriorating. The people, alarmed at Moshe’s long absence, clamor for reassurance. “This man Moshe, who brought us out of Egypt… we don’t know what has become of him.” Give us some visible sign that we are not abandoned, they say. Give us something to unite us again!
And Aaron, left in a position of leadership that he did not ask for, complies. What follows is the infamous episode of the “golden calf”. While there is some debate over the exact nature of this episode, and why it was such a failing, it is clear that it represented a major upset in the contract between the people and God, a contract that was, at that very moment, being concluded up on the mountain.
Moshe is told as much by God—who, in one of the ironic word plays so common in the Torah, begins a “battle of pronouns” with Moshe: “Your people, whom you led up from Egypt, have gone astray…” To which Moshe counters, “Don’t be angry with Your people, whom You brought out of Egypt…”
But while God lets the matter rest for now, Moshe is overcome by the disaster. When he sees the revelry around the cast-gold statue, he flings the Tablets of the Covenant from his hands and institutes a purge of the offenders.
But how could Moshe, who, more than any other figure, stands for Torah… how could he destroy the precious written record of the Covenant, inscribed by God’s own hand?
Destroying the evidence
Mulling over this question, our sages come to a surprising conclusion: Moshe is to be praised for his actions!
|Three things did Moshe do on his own initiative, and was backed up by God Himself… He broke the tablets… From where do we know that God agreed with Moshe? As it says, [when Moshe is told to carve a second set of tablets to replace those he had broken] “asher shibarta” (which you broke). Resh Lakish [reading this as “ashrei shibarta” (blessed is your breaking of them)] said, “Yishar kochekha that you broke them!”.
דתניא: שלשה דברים עשה משה מדעתו, והסכים הקדוש ברוך הוא עמו… ושבר את הלוחות… שבר את הלוחות. מאי דריש? אמר: ומה פסח שהוא אחד מתרי”ג מִצות, אמרה תורה: כל בן נכר לא יאכל בו (שמות יב, מג) – התורה כולה [כאן] וישראל משומדים, על אחת כמה וכמה! ומנלן דהסכים הקדוש ברוך הוא על ידו? שנאמר: “אשר שברת” (שמות לד א), ואמר ריש לקיש: יישר כחך ששיברת (שבת פז ע”א).
Why would Moshe be praised for his anger and chutzpah? In a marvelous shiur, Rav Yoel bin Nun weaves together the strands of midrash, together with a close reading of the Covenantal text. His conclusion: Moshe’s breaking of the tablets was an act of heroism by which Moshe saved all of Am Yisrael from destruction! This action paved the way for a more realistic Covenant, under better terms—one which the people—and we, their descendants—could live by.
The first set of tablets, explains Rav Yoel, were written in God’s hand. They included the written Torah only, with no provision for the extensive oral tradition and human reinterpretation on which Jewish Law depends. It was a law that represented the strict application of justice (or, if you will, the workings out of karma). There was no “if, ands, or buts”, no recourse, and no excuses.
Rav Yoel finds a broad hint of this in the first lines of the Covenant signed between God and Am Yisrael at Sinai. There, God uses the following formula to formalize the people’s commitment to live by His Law:
|“I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall not have the gods of others in My presence. You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, Who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, and [I] perform loving kindness to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:2)||
באָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים:
לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנַי:
לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה לְּךָ פֶסֶל | וְכָל תְּמוּנָה אֲשֶׁר בַּשָּׁמַיִם | מִמַּעַל וַאֲשֶׁר בָּאָרֶץ מִתַּחַת וַאֲשֶׁר בַּמַּיִם | מִתַּחַת לָאָרֶץ:
לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לָהֶם וְלֹא תָעָבְדֵם כִּי אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵל קַנָּא פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים לְשׂנְאָי:
וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי מִצְוֹתָי:
Upon coming down from the mountain, Moshe’s first action is to break the tablets of the law—the tablets of witness—that contain this preamble and command. It is an act of desperation which “destroyed the evidence” of the contractual agreement before God could carry out the threat implied in this first commandment. The midrash compares Moshe’s act to the tearing up of a marriage contract:
|R. Samuel b. R. Nahman said; When Israel were engaged [in the sin of the Golden Calf], the Holy One Blessed be He sat in judgement upon them to condemn them, as it is said “Now let Me alone that I may destroy them.”
… What did Moshe do? He took the tablets from the Almighty’s hand in order to assuage His wrath.
To what may this be compared? To a prince who sent a marriage-broker to betroth a woman on his behalf. He went, but she had compromised herself in the meantime with another. What did he do? He took the marriage contract which the prince had given him wherewith to betroth her and tore it up. He said: Better she should be judged as unmarried woman than a married one. …Moshe further said: Far better they be judged as inadvertent sinners than as deliberate ones.”
(Shemot Rabbah 43, 1)
ר’ שמואל בר נחמן אמר… משל למלך שכעס על בנו, וישב על בימה, ודנו וחייבו. נטל את הקולמוס לחתום גזר דינו. מה עשה סונקתדרו? חטף את הקולמוס מתוך ידוו של מלך כדי להשיב חמתו. כך בשעה שעשו ישראל אותו מעשה, ישב הקב”ה עליהם בדין לחייבם. שנאמר: “הרף ממני ואשמידם”. ולא עשה, אלא בא לחתום גזר דינן, שנאמר: “זבח לאלהים יחרם” (שמות כב, יט). מה עשה משה? נטל את הלוחות מתוך ידו של הקב”ה כדי להשיב חמתו. למה הדבר דומה? לשר ששלח לקדש אשה עם הסרסור, הלך וקלקלה עם אחר. הסרסור, שהיה נקי, מה עשה? נטל את כתובתה, מה שנתן לו השר לקדשה, וקרעה. אמר: מוטב שתִדון כפנויה ולא כאשת איש. כך עשה משה. כיון שעשו ישראל אותו מעשה, נטל את הלוחות ושִברן, כלומר שאלו היו רואין עונשן לא חטאו. ועוד אמר משה: מוטב יהו נידונין כשוגגין ואל יהו מזידין. למה? שהיה כתוב בלוחות: “אנכי ה’ אלהיך” (שמות כ, ב), ועונשו אצלו: “זבח לאלהים יחרם”. לפיכך שִבר את הלוחות (שמות רבה מג, א).
Now, having restored order among the people, Moshe returns to God to try to iron things out—an unwilling marriage broker. One would think that having “torn up the contract”, that would be the end of things: the Covenant would appear to be in ruins, the relationship with God irreparably destroyed.
The trust born of hindsight
And in fact, God had earlier given Moshe that option: Let Me wipe them out and we’ll start over. I’ll let you be a new Avraham and we’ll make a fresh start. Moshe instead had begged God to forgive the people. In one of the most selfless acts in the Torah, Moshe refuses: “If You will forgive this people… But if not, erase me from Your book!” God reassures Moshe that only the guilty will suffer, but hints that accounts will be settled at some point. What follows is one of the more enigmatic conversations in the entire Tanakh. Moshe, perhaps thinking he has nothing to lose, asks for a glimpse of the divine mystery:
|And now, if I have indeed found favor in Your eyes, pray let me know Your ways, so that I may know You, so that I may find favor in Your eyes; and consider that this nation is Your people.”||
וְעַתָּה אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת דְּרָכֶךָ וְאֵדָעֲךָ לְמַעַן אֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה כִּי עַמְּךָ הַגּוֹי הַזֶּה:
The exchange which follows goes further into mystical territory than anywhere else in the written Torah, ending with Moshe’s plea: הַרְאֵנִי נָא אֶת כְּבֹדֶךָ (“Show me Your glory!”)
The word used is “K’vodcha” from the root K-V-D, “heaviness.” Perhaps the closest contemporary expression would be “gravitas” (but “Show me Your gravitational field,” though perhaps appropriate, doesn’t quite have the poetic ring to it.) In answer, God tells him:
|“I will let all My goodness pass before you; I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you, and I will favor when I wish to favor, and I will have compassion when I wish to have compassion.”
And He said, “You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.”
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲנִי אַעֲבִיר כָּל טוּבִי עַל פָּנֶיךָ וְקָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם ה׳ לְפָנֶיךָ וְחַנֹּתִי אֶת אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם:
וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת פָּנָי כִּי לֹא יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם וָחָי:
But what is Moshe really asking for here? And why is it that “A human cannot see Me and live”?
One explanation is that Moshe is asking to be shown the workings of fate: “Show me how the existence of evil is compatible with a good God.” Not a surprising request, considering that God has just tested Moshe in much the same way as Avraham was tested at the Akeda. Moshe passed the test, but is scarred by this vision of God’s justice—strict justice, with no recourse, just as was spelled out in the first set of tablets. He asks to understand why evil flourishes in the world.
God’s answer, “you can’t see me and live,” is a precaution regarding the limitations of our knowledge. We can’t know everything; we can’t see God’s face. And this means that we can’t know why God allows (or causes?) terrible evil to flourish in the world. The corollary to this is that we assume that there is a reason, which may be comforting at those times when we allow ourselves to be comforted.
But the limitation on our knowledge applies in both directions. R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) interpreted the episode of Moshe seeing only “God’s back” as a statement about our inability to know the future. He writes that even if human beings reach a point where they can calculate events with ultimate precision, they will never be able to accurately calculate the future from present events. There will always be “chance” standing between us and ultimate certainty. Thus God says to man:
“You can put together, in a makeshift way, what I have already provided. But the future conceals itself from your calculations and your power. ‘You may look at me as I move away from you, but no mortal gaze may behold My countenance.’”
This was written nearly a century before Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. These days, we have reached the barrier of complexity in any attempt at “ultimate predictions”. Chaos theory is able to calculate trends in data, but the “complexity barrier” remains. This means that even on the most mundane level, we can’t predict the ultimate consequences of a given action, nor even know how past acts have brought about the present reality.
The path made by walking
Another view ties Moshe’s plea to the Oral Torah:
Rabbi Yanai said: “Had the Torah been given as one cut [ie., as one final, unchangeable decision in all matters without any possibility for divergent interpretation], we could not stand on our feet. ‘And God spoke to Moses’ [ie., He gave him the Torah]. At that time, Moses said to Him: ‘Make known to me how the Halakha is to be decided.’ He answered him: ‘One has to accept the opinion of the majority. If the majority acquits, acquit him; if they found him guilty, punish. It is necessary that the Torah be capable of forty-nine ways of interpretation of affirming an opinion and forty-nine ways of opposing it.’” (T.Y. Sanhedrin 4:2)
In Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakhah, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, notes that Moshe’s plea was for absolute truth:
Why, indeed, was it necessary to formulate the text of the Torah in such a manner that it be open to so many possibilities of interpretation? It would seem to us that in saying that Moses was asking God to tell him the final Halakhah, Rabbi Yannai intends to tell us that it is not for man to ask of God that He reveal to him the ultimate, objective truth; it is not for us to ask for the “voice from heaven” to pronounce the halakhic decision as a dictate from on high for all generations. That is impossible, for in such a case one could not live with such a Torah. One of the commentators of the Jerusalamite Talmud explains: “The world could have no existence; it must be possible to interpret the Torah this way and that way… ‘and these as well as those are the word of the living God.'” It is a pity that our commentator did not fully say why this was necessary and why the world could have no stand[ing] otherwise. (Berkovits, Not in Heaven, p. 52)
One possible reason why the world could not stand otherwise is the need for chaos at the heart of physical existence—uncertainty is a prerequisite for human free will. Perhaps a world in which all things can be foreseen is a world in which Torah would be meaningless. For human conduct to have meaning, the world must be such that the right action is not foreordained, nor even completely determined by law. The uncertainty and malleability of the Torah mirrors that of the world itself. Or, our sages might say, it’s the other way around—the world was built on randomness and chaos purely for the sake of the Torah. Thus, God looked into the Torah and created the Universe.
We don’t know what Moshe actually saw, but we are told what he heard:
|And The Eternal passed before him and the Eternal proclaimed: the Eternal, benevolent God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin; yet He does not completely clear [of sin] He visits the iniquity of parents on children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generations.”||
ה׳ אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת:
נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד | עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים:
This description of God’s workings in the universe is called the “Thirteen Divine Middot (Attributes)” and is one of the most quoted phrases in all of scripture. It is the central theme of the Yom Kippur liturgy, and is repeated throughout the day on a note of rising expectancy and triumph. But what does it mean in context?
Rav Yoel points out the startling similarity between this phrase and the opening commandment of the first set of tablets:
|1st set of tablets
I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God,
HaShem, benevolent God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and sin; yet He does not completely clear [of sin]
While the first set of Tablets included the absolute conditional property of God’s justice, the Thirteen Middot leave out “those who keep My commandments”. But more, they include the gentler attributes (slow to anger, compassionate…) missing from the first set of tablets, and mention Divine justice almost as a parenthetical remark.
And this, according to Rav Yoel, is the unwritten principle behind the Second set of tablets: the Middat HaRachamin as opposed to the previous Middat HaDin. Although Moshe is instructed to write on them exactly what was on the first set, he is given this vision of something beyond the Written Law—a glimpse of the inner workings of justice, and a hint of how the law is to be interpreted and reinterpreted in later ages.
This is the writing “between the lines” in the crowns and dots on the letters. This is the text that, in another famous midrash, the generation of Moshe was unable to read, and which hence could not be passed down in the Written Torah. But a thousand years later, R’ Akiva was able to expound every dot and crown into a “mountain of halakhot”. And so it is to this day: having survived an exile that destroyed every other nation that shared our fate at the time, here we are—still nourished by the white spaces between the letters, still expounding the crowns on the letters to derive “whole mountains of halakhah”.
And this is why our sages link the Oral Law (the Torah sh’baal peh) to a verse at the end of our Parashah:
ויאמר ה׳ אל משה כתב לך את הדברים האלה כי על פי הדברים האלה כרתי אתך ברית ואת ישראל
God said to Moshe, “Write out these words, because according to these words, I am making a covenant with you and with Israel.”
|Rabbi Yehuda bar Nachmani, the disseminator for Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, expounded as follows: It is written: “Write you these matters” (Exodus 34:27), and it is written later in that same verse: “For on the basis of [al pi] these matters.” How can these texts be reconciled? They mean to teach: Matters that were written you may not express them orally [al peh], and matters that were taught orally you may not express them in writing. The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: The word “these” in the mitzva recorded in the verse “Write these words (things)” is used here in an emphatic sense: These matters, i.e., those recorded in the Written Law, you may write, but you may not write halakhot, i.e., the mishnayot and the rest of the Oral Law.
Rabbi Yochanan says: The Holy One, Blessed be He, made a covenant with the Jewish people only for the sake of the things that were transmitted orally [be’al peh], as it is stated: “For on the basis of [al pi] these things I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (Exodus 34:27)
דרש רבי יהודה בר נחמני מתורגמניה דרבי שמעון בן לקיש, כתיב: (שמות ל”ד) “כתב לך את הדברים האלה”, וכתיב: (שמות ל”ד) “כי על פי הדברים האלה”, הא כיצד? דברים שבכתב אי אתה רשאי לאומרן על פה, דברים שבעל פה אי אתה רשאי לאומרן בכתב. דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא: אלה – אלה אתה כותב, ואי אתה כותב הלכות.
א”ר יוחנן: לא כרת הקב”ה ברית עם ישראל אלא בשביל דברים שבעל פה, שנאמר: (שמות ל”ד) “כי על פי הדברים האלה כרתי אתך ברית ואת ישראל”. (בבלי גטין ס:)
Thus, the human share of the Torah is not “instead of” the divinely-sanctioned tradition; it is part of it! We apply our reasoning to the received tradition because of something built into the structure of creation itself. It isn’t the capacity of our minds that’s lacking. Rather, the reality is undetermined until the time comes for it to be determined. We can’t ask God to tell us the future, not because we wouldn’t understand, but because the future has not yet been decided. We are part of what makes things happen in one way rather than another.
Nor can we ask God to tell us how to judge among human beings. We must follow our own understanding because the Torah is not in Heaven. The second set of tablets were carved by the human hand, and reflect the human element in Divine law. Hence, the reaction of God when confronted with the sages’ refusal to accept the judgement of the Heavenly Voice in the case of the Tanur shel Achnai: “My children have defeated me.” It is the victory of the created world itself—the victory of a chaotic creation that is actually capable of surprising and delighting its Creator.
 Hirsch, Samson Raphael. The Jewish Year, Vol. 1. p. 33.
 Bavli Massechet Menachot 29b.