Vort from the Rav: Ki Sisa

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Ex. 32:19

וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ מִיָּדָו אֶת הַלֻּחֹת
and he flung the tablets from his hands.

There is a disagreement among Chazal regarding the circumstances surrounding the breaking of the tablets. Most opinions maintain that Moses intentionally broke the tablets since he did not want to present them to the idolatrous nation. To support this premise, there is a passage in Bava Basra (14b) in which God congratulates Moses for having broken the Tablets: May your strength be true to its mark [may you be congratulated] for having broken them. Indeed, if one reads the Biblical description of the event closely, this version of the event is consistent: Moses’ anger was kindled, and he flung the tablets from his hands.

There is another opinion that Moses did not break the tablets deliberately, but they fell from his hands and broke on their own. Yalkut Shimoni (Ki Sisa 393) recounts: Moses looked at the tablets and saw the writing fly away, and [the Tablets] became heavy in Moses’ hands and they fell from his hands and they shattered.

An interesting observation can be made in this latter version. In preparation for presenting the second set of Tablets, Moses was asked to carve two blank tablets and carry them up Mount Sinai: So he [Moses] hewed two stone tablets like the first ones, and Moses arose early in the morning and ascended Mount Sinai as the Lord had commanded him, and he took two stone tablets in his hand (verse 4). Apparently, carrying these two stones up the mountain presented no difficulty for Moses. Yet, according to Yalkut Shimoni‘s version of events, when Moses first descended the mountain the tablets proved too heavy for him. While simple physics would suggest that climbing a mountain with a heavy load is more difficult than descending with the same load, the Torah’s account disagrees with physics in this detail. The Torah formulated a paradoxical law that contradicts our day-to-day experience: one who climbs Mount Sinai can carry a load more effectively than one who descends it!

Man can exist in one of two states: as object or as subject, as one who acts or one who is acted upon. If, for example, a person climbs a mountain, concentrating on the difficult task at hand, straining to maintain his footing as he reaches higher and higher, he acts as a gavra, as a subject. But if suddenly, by loosening a rock upon which he is balanced, he loses his footing and falls into the abyss, the gavra is transformed into a cheftza, an object.

A person acts as gavra as long as he opposes external forces. The mountain climber opposes the force of gravity. The gavra mobilizes his energy and free will against such forces. The cheftza does not act against these forces of nature, but is subservient to them. The metaphor of descent as it applies to the cheftza is similarly applied when Israel sinned, as God told Moses: Go, descend, for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly (32:7).

Moses was an ascender when, as gavra, filled with love for the Creator, he pined for confirmation of God’s forgiveness towards His people. In this role, Moses could overcome all psychological and physical obstacles, and in the cold wind of morning he climbed the mountain to meet the Master of the Universe. Moses in this guise was capable of carrying not only the two Tablets but the entire world on his shoulders.

But after Moses had climbed the mountain the first time, at what should have been his moment of triumph, the sinning nation defeated him. God’s voice thundered, I have bestowed greatness on you only for the sake of Israel (Rashi on 32:7). Moses’ defeat came at the hands of the iniquitous nation under his charge. An unbearable force was unleashed upon Moses, propelling him downward until he could no longer hold the Tablets aloft. In one instant the greatest of all men turned into an object, a descender. The Tablets became too heavy for Moses to bear and he shatter[ed] them at the foot of the mountain (32:19). (Derashot Harav, pp. 68-71)

About Arnold Lustiger

Dr. Arnold Lustiger is a research scientist and has edited multiple volumes of the Rav's Torah, including the recently published Chumash Mesoras HaRav.

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