I Kings 18:1-18:39
One of the lowest points in the Torah occurs in Ki Tissa, when Moses descends Mount Sinai carrying the tablets on which are inscribed the Ten Commandments. This moment, which should be filled with awe and joy, quickly becomes a moment of anger and disappointment.
What Moses, who has been communing with God for 40 days, sees as he comes down is not a people committed to the God who has led them out of slavery. Rather, he sees a people engaged in worship of an idol, a golden calf.
Angry and frustrated that the people have so quickly reverted to pagan practices, Moses throws down the tablets. And to make matters even worse, it is Moses’ own brother, Aaron, who is leading the people.
Although the idea of idol worship is foreign to us now, the Israelites had only recently left Egypt, a land where not only idols and rulers were worshipped as gods, but animals as well. The Torah also makes clear that along with the Israelites, a group of Egyptians joined them in seeking freedom and a better way of life. Some commentators have speculated that it was these Egyptians who were responsible for the building of the golden calf.
At the time of the incident at the base of Mount Sinai, the Israelites were a young people in spiritual terms. For this newly freed people, Moses was the face of monotheism. When he ascended the mountain to talk to God and then was absent for almost six weeks, they must have felt that their connection to God was severed.
None of the parties in this parshah comes off looking good. Moses shows a harsh temper and a quick judgment in his reaction to what he sees. Aaron is shown to be an immature leader who vacillated and ultimately gave in to the people’s demands for a tangible god. And the young Israelite nation shows its lack of faith in God.
But ultimately God will give the people a second set of tablets, showing that God forgives Moses, Aaron and the Israelites. The first time Moses climbed Mount Sinai, God carved both the tablets and inscribed the words. The second time, though, it is more of a partnership. God asks Moses to carve the stones and bring them up the mountain. God then inscribes the words on the tablets Moses has made. In this way God insures that Moses will feel like even more of a partner in bringing God’s words and laws to the people.
It is interesting that according to our tradition, Moses received the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. God understands that we are but flesh and blood, capable of sin but also of repentance and growth.
A lovely midrash teaches that throughout their wandering in the desert, the Israelites carried not only the second, unbroken set of tablets but also the shattered remains of the first set. Our tradition is teaching us that the story of the Israelites’ relationship with God is told through both sets of tablets.
We tend to look at the episode of the golden calf as one the Israelites had to overcome and put behind them so that they could truly become a monotheistic and law-abiding people. But the notion that the broken tablets traveled with them for 40 years also teaches us the value of carrying a bit of our transgressions, wounds and mistakes with us. In addition, we learn that we truly are the sum total of our life experiences, both the good and the negative.
We are above all a people of memory. The Israelites held onto their fragments so that they could remember, not where they started, but how far they came. We too must strive to move forward but also to remember — to keep little bits of our failures and our transgressions with us so that we remember not just where we failed but how much we have grown.
Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.