On Learning, Loss, and Freedom: D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Tissa

Published Mar 5, 2021
Aryeh Bernstein speaking with his hand raised outward

Ours is a parashah of contrasts, of colossal misses. After the overwhelming revelation to the newly free people, Moshe spends forty days receiving the rest of Torah from God. Only at the end, does he find out that meanwhile, down below, the people, impatient at Moshe’s absence, build a Golden Calf, proclaiming, as ridiculously as when people do so today, that this calf is God, who brought them out of Egypt (Sh’mot/Exodus 32:8). The next step in the narrative is that Moshe, seeing people not only worshiping this idol, but doing so without a hint of desperation or reservation, but dancing in celebration (32:19), dramatically smashes the Divine tablets of Torah into pieces and burns down the calf into water, making the offenders drink it (32:20), challenging the people to choose sides and demonstrate their commitments. Before introducing this narrative shift, just on the cusp of Moshe seeing the travesty with his eyes and shattering the tablets, the Torah heightens the drama by telling us a deferred piece of information about these tablets: “The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, engraved upon the tablets” (32:16). Moshe took a supernatural gift and shattered it, irretrievably, into pieces. What should we learn from these tablets, their shattering, and their fragments?

The Hebrew word for “engraved”, or “inscribed” is “haruth — חָרוּת”. Though commentators note that this is synonymous with the more common word, “harut — חרוט”, it is an unusual, even unique spelling of the word. This anomaly leads the Rabbis to interpret the “misspelling” as a play on words, imbuing the verse with a double entendre: “Do not read, ‘haruth – חרות – engraved’, but ‘heiruth – חירות – freedom’” (Midrash VaYikra Rabbah 18:3). Three second-century Sages shared somewhat different understandings of the crux of the freedom which was manifested by these miraculous tablets: “Rabbi Yehuda said, freedom from the Angel of Death. Rabbi Nehemia said, freedom from the kingdoms. The Rabbis said, freedom from suffering” (ibid.). The Divine Word, the totalizing expression of truth and understanding that is the culmination of exodus and liberation, is Freedom — whether from mortality, from political subjugation, or from suffering — and it was that freedom, which was ours for the inhabiting, was shattered and lost. Punctuating the tragedy of this colossal error and missed opportunity, a 2nd-Century sage reflects on another implication of our verse: “Rabbi Eliezer said: What is the meaning of that which is written, ‘engraved upon the tablets’? Had the first tablets not been broken, the Torah would never have been forgotten from the Jewish people” (Talmud Bavli, ‘Eiruvin 54a). We blew it: we are forever doomed to forgetfulness and loss, to grasping for fragmentary glimpses of the wisdom that would have enabled freedom.

How should we relate to Moshe’s shattering of the tablets if it led to such devastating consequences? Was it terrible for Mosheh to lose his temper and to desecrate and destroy God’s holy word, or was it a necessary intervention in a crisis? The Talmud records a position that God congratulated Moshe for breaking the tablets. Interpreting the verse of God’s subsequent concession to re-engrave the tablets, “…I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke (asher shibarta)” (34:1), the 3rd century Sage Resh Lakish teased out a sonic word play, an allusion in the verse: “ASHER shibarta” = “YISHAR koach she-shibarta”; “which you broke” is taken to mean, “more power to you for breaking” (Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 14b). On the face of it, this is surprising: if a Torah scroll, which is only a shadow of a shadow of the Divinely-engraved tablets, is burned by enemies, the Talmud teaches that we must tear our clothes in mourning, as if a relative died (Mo‘ed Katan 26a), and later legal authorities extend this even to shorter scrolls of Biblical texts, such as in tefillin Shulchan Arukh YD 340:37). Later popular custom, validated by recent legal authorities, even calls for fasting when a Torah scroll merely falls to the floor, with no damage accruing. 

A clue into why God would have congratulated Moshe for smashing the miraculous, Divinely-engraved tablets, may be found in God’s diagnosis of the root cause of the people’s catastrophic crime of building the Golden Calf: “I see that this is a stiff-necked people” (32:9). Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg unpacks this indictment: “Paradoxically, this expression, coined for this occasion, implies an unexpected fidelity to old ideas. In Rashi’s words, ‘They turn the stiff back of their necks toward those who would rebuke them and refuse to listen.’ To be stiff-necked, then, is to be intransigent, loyal to a fault….If the implications of the ‘stiff neck’ are taken seriously, then, they disturb a primary notion of idolatry as infidelity. Perhaps, after all, the people are all too pious in their attachments? Perhaps they have never, in fact, left Egypt, that place of the…callous-hearted? Perhaps there is a pathology of Egypt that can be healed only by a capacity to listen?” (The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, pp. 408-409). Freedom is movement: the Angel of Death, oppressive regimes, and forces of suffering are dynamic; the freedom offered through Torah, must be ever more so. The sin of the Golden Calf was fundamentally about the people ending the exodus journey, freezing, not having to go free any longer, relaxing, becoming complacent, living happily ever after, valorizing the past, elevating memory, eschewing learning. Had they not replaced God with a Golden Calf, they would have replaced God with the tablets. They would have made them into a statue, too, and worshiped them, as static icons. They would have treated Torah as the opposite of Torah, and called it Torah. Moshe had to smash them in order to sustain them as the dynamic harbingers of freedom that they were. Resh Lakish taught a dangerous lesson for the generations from his understanding that God congratulated Moshe for breaking the tablets: “Sometimes the canceling of Torah is, itself, its foundation” (Talmud Bavli, Menahot 99a-b).

Torah would never have been forgotten had Moshe not shattered the tablets, yet Moshe was given kudos for doing so. The 20th Century New York thinker, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, reads these two teachings by 3rd century contemporaries to teach the startling position that “it is possible for Torah to be proliferated via forgetting Torah, such that it is reasonable to receive a yishar koach (“more power to you”) for causing forgetting of Torah” (Pahad Yitzhak, Hanukkah 3). Rav Hutner recalls another Talmudic text about a different rupture, after Moshe’s death: “1,700 Biblical derivations, and Rabbinic fine points were forgotten in the days of mourning for Moshe.

Rabbi Abbahu said: Even so, Otniel ben Kenaz restored them through his dialectics” (Talmud Bavli, Temurah 16a). As Dr. Zornberg explains, “If the Torah is forgotten, the effect is not, after all, unmitigatedly tragic. For out of oblivion comes interpretation, reconstruction, the act of memory that re-creates the past….Multiple perspectives proliferate when memory loses its mastery” (The Particulars of Rapture, 457). After Otniel’s restoration through learning, the people recovered not just the lost derivations, but the experience of recovery; those pilpulim/dialectics (from the Hebrew word for “pepper”), seasoned, enhanced, and grew Torah.

Maybe the path to freedom through Divine, dynamic clarity was not attainable. Moshe, sharing the people’s human experience and vulnerabilities, understood that. By smashing the tablets, he exposed what they were and paved an alternative, more circuitous path toward that freedom through the always radical process of learning. For the second tablets, God commanded Moshe, “You, carve out two stone tablets like the first ones, which you shattered” (34:1). What a paradox: the second ones are to be like the first ones, and yet, the main thing we know about the first ones is that they were not chiseled out by human hands, as these must be. Fully divine Torah becomes an idol; it must be shattered. To be Divinely dynamic, to herald freedom, as Torah must, it must be created through human sweat equity. As the Netziv (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 19th Century, Russia) explained, “the power of innovation was not given with the first tablets, but only that which Moshe received…but not to innovate a legal matter via the 13 interpretive principles or other similar aspects of Talmudic learning. There was no Oral Torah.…With the second tablets, though, the power was given to every veteran student to innovate halakha/law via the interpretive principles and Talmudic learning….It was for this reason that the Holy One commanded that the second tablets would be carved out by Moshe…in order to teach that halakha is innovated through…the participation of the hard work of human beings, with the help of Heaven” (Ha‘Amek Davar on Sh’mot 34:1). When you immerse in learning, in interpretation, in the creative and dynamic filtering of received wisdom through the prism of your own experience and insight, your innovations have the imprimatur of Divine revelation; they are Torah, as taught in a famous teaching of 3rd Century Rabbi Yehoshua‘ ben Levi that all Torah statements, “midrash, halakhot, aggadot, and even that which veteran students will say in the future before their rabbis, was already said to Moshe at Sinai” (Talmud Yerushalmi Pe’ah 2:6 and elsewhere).

What happens to our shattered tablets, our precious shards of the possibility of freedom? Rav Yoseph teaches (Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 14b and elsewhere) that the tablets and the pieces of the shattered first tablets are placed together in the ark of the Tabernacle. The first tablets represented a world with clear, objective truths. That’s gone, irretrievably. Those tablets are shattered and God will never again hew them out for us miraculously. Truth is forever after subjective and contingent on our involvement and perspective. Nevertheless, the shattered tablets sit alongside the living, whole, human-divine tablets.  The broken tablets anchor our creativity, drawing it into the ongoing project of recovery of freedom. They also warn us not to make idols of our received wisdom, to reject orthodoxies, to relate to our previous knowledge as a point of departure, not as a destination. The co-existence of the broken, perfect tablets, and the whole, imperfect tablets remind us that learning is a way of life, not a means to any end short of universal freedom.

Shabbat shalom.

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