Parshat Ki Tisa: Fragments of Tablets in the Ark

We must remember that a person who gave of himself when he was younger, taught others or benefited society in his own way, would do so now if he had the strength and opportunity.

Moses Painting (photo credit: Phillipe de Champagne)
Moses Painting
(photo credit: Phillipe de Champagne)
One of the greatest tragedies in the Torah, if not the greatest, appears in this week’s parsha. After the most significant event of all time – Ma’amad Har Sinai, the event at which Am Yisrael experienced a divine revelation and heard the Ten Commandments, Moshe Rabbeinu leaves the nation for a period of 40 days in order to dwell on the top of Mount Sinai and receive the Torah with the goal of passing it on to the nation. But on the 40th day, the whole story is disrupted.
Part of the nation miscalculated the days and believed the day when Moshe Rabbeinu was supposed to return to the nation had passed. Therefore, it decided to create a replacement for Moshe’s leadership in the form of a large golden sculpture shaped like a calf. The golden calf was created and the nation broke into dance around it, and with fingers pointing at the calf, they chanted, “These are your gods, Israel!” Moshe Rabbeinu, rushing to get down the mountain while holding the two tablets etched with the Ten Commandments, hears from afar the sounds of wild joy and wanton dancing, sounding not like the inner and qualitative joy appropriate to this event, but like pagan worship ecstasy. As he approaches, he discovers that the nation did indeed veer off the path and is dancing around the golden calf. At that moment, Moshe made a daring decision, an almost inconceivable one. He waves the two tablets in the air – the two incredible tablets made by G-d Himself, without human intervention – and throws them to the ground, breaking them into fragments.
Then the process of the nation’s purification began. After the sinners were punished and Moshe prayed and plead for forgiveness for the nation, the process of receiving the tablets began again. G-d instructs Moshe to etch two new tablets and writes the Ten Commandments on them again.
These are the second tablets placed by Moshe in the Ark of the Covenant which sat in the holiest place, the Holy of Holies inside the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), and afterward in the Holy of Holies in the Temple.
This is a short description of a huge tragedy.
Our sages say that the signs of this tragedy will not have dissipated completely from the Jewish nation until we merit full redemption. But we are interested in the fate of those first tablets, the ones that were angrily thrown down by Moshe when faced with the dancing around the golden calf. Were the fragments of the tablets left there, at the foot of Mount Sinai, abandoned and forgotten? The Talmud (Tractate Menachot, page 99) tells us that the fate of those tablet fragments was the same as the second pair.
They, too, like the whole tablets, were respectfully placed in the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, though they served no purpose broken.
Rabbi Yosef, a famous Babylonian Talmudic sage, learns a practical lesson from the act of keeping the tablet fragments: “From this we learn that a wise man who forgets his Talmud through no choice of his own should not be treated disgracefully.”
Actually – and here we sense the pain that accompanies his words – Rabbi Yosef was speaking of himself. In another place in the Talmud (Tractate Nedarim, page 41) it is told that Rabbi Yosef suffered from an illness that caused him to forget his Talmud, and he was forced to have his students help remind him of things that he himself, the teacher, had taught them in the past.
The fragments of the tablets placed in the Ark of the Covenant convey a message to the generations of respect and appreciation for older people or those who are sick, who are already not functioning as they did in the days of their youth, and now are not able to be beneficial to their environment as they had been. Unfortunately, people like this occasionally get treated badly by their surroundings, like a dusty and broken object whose time has passed and is no longer beneficial.
We must remember that a person who gave of himself when he was younger, taught others or benefited society in his own way, would do so now if he had the strength and opportunity.
And furthermore, his donation is always eternal even if at the present time it is not being actualized.
For this, he merits being appreciated and treated respectfully, as befits his desires which cannot be actualized.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.