I Kings 18:1–39
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” — Ernest Hemingway
“There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” — Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
There are few events in Jewish history more devastating than the scene depicted in this week’s portion. Moses descends Mount Sinai, having just concluded a learnathon with God lasting 40 days and nights, studying the entire Torah. In his hands are the greatest gift from God to humanity, the two tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments, encapsulating the entire Torah.
Having left his people only several weeks earlier in a state of transcendence and rapture from the experience at Sinai, Moses returns to a nightmare. He finds them humiliating themselves around a golden calf, a debased nation. They are making a mockery of the most fundamental tenet of Judaism — the belief in the one and only — articulated in the Shema, our most sacred prayer, recited multiple times daily: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”
In an act of rage that defies comprehension, Moses takes the tablets and shatters them at the base of the mountain. Although God eventually forgives the Jews for that calamity and replaces the tablets with a second pair, they are but a shadow of the earlier version. The Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) relates that the shards of the broken tablets were eventually collected and placed in the ark beside the second tablets, and for all the years the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the two sets of tablets, the broken and whole, were side by side in the Holy of Holies.
One wonders, “Why did Moses have to break the tablets?” Sure, he was incensed at what the Jews had done. But he could have just chosen not to share them with the undeserving people. Or, if he felt the nation was beyond redemption, he simply could have returned them to God. Imagine the greatest work of art by the greatest artist the world would ever know smashed to smithereens in a fit of anger, only to be preserved for posterity in its broken state, serving as an eternal reminder of our great moral failing.
Even more astonishing, many years later when describing the end of Moses’ life and his greatest achievements and accomplishments, the Torah chooses to record the episode of his breaking the tablets and proclaim it his greatest feat as leader of his people. Indeed, the Talmud states that God told Moses, “Yasher koach” (loosely translated, “Way to go!”).
Really? Even if it was justified and necessary, was it more impressive than splitting the sea and miraculously leading the Jews from Egypt to the border of Israel? Is this how the Torah wants us to remember Moses?
The Lubavitcher rebbe explains that on a deeper mystical level, Moses did not break the tablets in anger; rather he was beginning the process of rehabilitating the Jewish people. Until then, our connection to God was based on wholesomeness and spiritual transcendence. We were perfect, whole souls yearning to connect with their source, and then we fell.
So, too, all of us enter the world spiritually whole and full of hope, but at some point we all fall. Moses’ real concern was what was to become of those who had fallen so low, so broken and shattered by life’s experiences that they could no longer see God and his tablets as a perfect whole. Was it possible for someone so broken to become complete again?
This would become for Moses his most important mission — to teach us how to find Godliness in the broken places in our lives, and help us recognize that God is constantly with us in moments of distress. Just as in the Temple, the whole and broken tablets lived together; similarly in our own lives, moments of perfection reside alongside times of struggle.
Great leaders are defined not by how they lead during times of tranquility and when things are whole, but rather by how they respond in times of crisis and broken spirit. Ultimately, the Torah chose precisely this episode to be Moses’ most shining moment, by teaching us the eternal truth of Judaism. Never ever give up hope; that which is dark and broken can be transformed into holiness and light.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.