October 3, 2002
For What It’s Worth
In 1999, I journeyed down to San Diego to view an exhibit on "World War II Through Russian Eyes" at Balboa Park's Municipal Gymnasium and Exhibit Hall. Part of the exhibit included actual clothing items that Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin wore when they inspected their troops. Each item was estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history. The names Hitler and Stalin are at the top of everyone's list as culprits who established this fact. Clothing that these individuals wore is priceless? There is an ironic, but historical, truth to this fact. Remnants from history, physical objects from past significant events, are valuable to people who want to remember.
There is something very odd in the book of Exodus (30:11-34:35,) when Moses goes up on Mount Sinai to converse with God and receive the Decalogue, the two stone tablets that have the Ten Commandments written on them. When he comes down from the mountain, Moses sees the people engaged in an activity, the building of the Golden Calf, that violates their covenant with God. In a rage, Moses smashes the two tablets.
Moses sees who among the people of Israel are remorseful for their actions, who still accept his leadership and who still want (for themselves and their descendants) to be in covenant with God. He then takes care of business with those who are on the opposite side of the divine agreement.
Moses goes up on Mount Sinai a second time and receives another set of tablets from God. He then descends to the people, who apparently have learned their lesson. This time, they place the two whole tablets in an ark that is part of the Tent of Meeting, a portable sanctuary that travels with the people on their journeys.
Whatever happened to the broken pieces of the original tablets? Aren't these broken shards a reminder of a significant event in Jewish tradition? Just like the clothing that Hitler and Stalin wore, wouldn't the people find them valuable to possess? This question is not addressed in the Torah text.
When a question is asked about the Torah narrative and its answer is not found implicitly in the text, there is often a midrash, a rabbinic writing, that provides an answer. In this case, there is not one, but several midrashim that provide answers to the question of what happened to the original stone tablets that Moses smashed.
The midrash answer that I like the most is that Moses and the people took the broken shards from the original tablets and placed them in the ark along with the two whole tablets. This ark now contained two tablets that were whole, complete and divine in origin along with broken pieces that were also divine in origin.
Vicki Kelman, a fellow Jewish educator who lives in Northern California, sees this ark containing both the whole tablets alongside the broken shards as a metaphor for an individual life. She writes that this symbolism reflects a deep human truth.
"Everyone carries broken pieces along with whole pieces in their ark, which is the human soul [or heart or psyche]," she says. "The broken pieces can not be left behind, thrown out, forgotten or atomized. They have to be taken along and kept beside the new and the whole.... The pieces are part of who we are. They go where we go ... the difference between people -- who can go on and those who can't -- is the difference in ability to keep each in its place.
"People who fall by the wayside are those who are so busy with the broken pieces that they are constantly being re-wounded by the sharp edges," she continues. "People who go on are those who are able to hold onto the broken pieces and yet maintain concentration on the whole. Those broken pieces never lose their power to bruise, sometimes at the oddest, least-expected times, but they do not have the power to deny or overshadow the existence of the new whole. Each is in its place.
"The Jewish people got past the shattering experience of the Golden Calf. They were able to repair the ruptured relationships, but what happened could never be wished away, undone or forgotten. They had to carry the broken pieces for the first set of tablets, symbols of the rupture, into their new life."
A number of years ago, I experienced, firsthand, the lesson that Kelman interprets from this midrash. Forest fires were raging in our part of Southern California. The flames were still a safe distance from our house, but the winds were blowing in our direction. My wife and I decided to play it safe. We phoned some dear friends and informed them that they would be extending overnight hospitality until the fires were extinguished. I then kept our children occupied while my wife packed our belongings. Among the items she grabbed were our family photo albums and scrapbooks.
That night, while our children slept, I remember browsing through our family memorabilia and feeling emotions that were almost as intense as the actual experiences that the photos and scrapbook items made me remember. The joy from personal accomplishments, life-cycle events and the frivolous fun of being with family and friends gave me a great high. The pain from the loss of loved ones, failures and missed opportunities in life made me reflect.
Kodak, in their old advertisement, was correct in saying that pictures "tell a thousand words." The challenge of life is putting those words in the right order so that they capture our true selves. The goal in life is putting the words in the right order so that they help guide us to travel in a positive direction on the perilous path of life.
Elliot Fein teaches Jewish studies to high schoolers at Tarbut V'Torah Community School in Irvine.