The pyrotechnical epiphany at Sinai – replete with thunder, lightning, smoke, fire, loud blasts of the ram’s horn and the Divine Presence – brought terrified amazement and violent trembling upon the mountain and upon the Israelite nation below (Exodus 19:16-19).
Nevertheless, barely 40 days after the most singular event in history, the Israelites orgiastically worship the Golden Calf, making a mockery of the second commandment.
Our portion of Ki Tisa records the revelation, the act of idolatry, the smashing of the Tablets of Stone by Moses, and God’s command to Moses to re-create the tablets, presumably as a proof of Divine forgiveness.
Did the Second Tablets contain an element that had been lacking in the first, perhaps something to prevent a repetition of the tragedy that had just occurred? Logic would suggest an additional dimension to the second Tablets, a therapeutic and even purifying dimension. Let us return to the story and closely examine the text.
After their great sin, the Hebrews are confused and bereft. They divest themselves of their jewelry and special clothing, according to biblical commentator Ibn Ezra as an act of mourning.
Moses cries out to God: “Reveal to me, please, your glory, Your ways,” which Maimonides sees as a plea to know God’s characteristics – in this world – so that we may know how to relate to Him.
God acquiesces, while explaining that a complete understanding of His Essence (“His face,” as it were) is impossible for living mortals; “You [Moses, and the Jewish people] will be able to be next to Me, in close proximity to My Existence, to understand what is accomplished by Me in the wake of My Existence (ahorai, nature and history). And God agrees to “cause all of His goodness to pass before Moses and to reveal His Name before Moses,” as Moses stands in the crevice of the mountain (Exodus 33:17-23).
So ends chapter 33 of the Book of Exodus. As we begin chapter 34, Moses is standing on the cleft of a rock on Mount Sinai, about to receive the second revelation, not a set of God’s laws (as in the first revelation), but a set of God’s names. “And the Lord descended in a cloud, and stood there with him (Moses), and He (the Lord) proclaimed in His name…” (24:5). And the first Name, Y-H-V-H, the Ineffable Name is interpreted by our Talmudic Sages to express the God of consummate and unconditional love (midat harahamim); and so it is repeated twice: “I am the Lord of love before you sin, and I am the Lord of love after you sin” (B.T. Rosh Hashana 17b).
And so it is not by accident that the date of this second revelation was 10 Tishrei (see Rashi, Exodus 33:11). Yom Kippur, the day on which God’s love was manifest to Israel when He forgave the sin of the Golden Calf by commanding the second tablets; repairing and renewing the broken tablets which symbolized a broken people. The Torah and the people may be repaired and renewed, whenever they seek His loving forgiveness; herein lies the “glory” (kavod) of God in this world.
But there remains a jarring problem in the text. One would have expected the declaration of God’s Name of Love (Y-H-V-H) to have been the very first verse of chapter 34, the major content of the second revelation, and the central meaning of our Festival of Yom Kippur on 10 Tishrei. But it is the fifth verse, not the first. The first verse of chapter 34 opens with God’s command to Moses, “Sculpt out for yourself two tablets of stone like the first…,” telling him to ascend Mount Sinai and to work on the Tablets alone. And this command was given 40 days before Yom Kippur, on 29 Av. The fifth verse brings us forward 40 days to Yom Kippur. Why the zigzag? The key to understanding these verses and time lines is the statement of the Midrash that the Second Tablets – unlike the first – contained the Oral Law, “Halachot, Midrash, Aggadot and the Talmud” (Midrash Shmot Raba 47:7). God, in His great love for us, understands that human nature is prone to sin, believes that eventually good will triumph, and just as He took us as His partners to perfect the world as a holy nation and a kingship of kohen-teachers to humanity (Seforno), so before the second revelation He takes us as His partners to complete His Torah, to make it relevant for every generation through hermeneutic interpretation, and to be invested in it because it is our Torah as well as His.
Hence, while the first tablets were hewn out and written by God Himself, the second tablets were sculpted and written by Moses symbolizing the religious leader of every generation. Whereas the environment at the time of the first revelation (Written Law) was fear inducing, the very infrastructure of the Oral Law, second revelation, was God-forgiving and God-empowering, based upon the love and forgiveness which are God’s Names. And the date of the second revelation, 10 Tishrei, which is Yom Kippur, “the Holy One Blessed be He enters at-one-ment with Israel with joy and a full heart” (Exodus 33:11, end of Rashi). Shabbat shalom.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.
“And all the people stripped themselves of the golden earrings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took [them] from their hand[s], fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made it into a molten calf, upon which they said: “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:3-4) (Painting by Yoram Raanan; www.yoramraanan.com; www.facebook.com/RaananArt)