The “Tablets of Testimony,” the stone tablets upon which God inscribed the Ten Commandments, have a powerful and deeply symbolic story to tell. Beyond the words inscribed by God, the journey of these stone tablets reveals an important lesson in life.
A mere 40 days after hearing God’s voice pronounce the Ten Commandments, the Israelites suffered a serious spiritual setback. Unable to retain, or even comprehend, the idea of a formless spirit speaking in a divine voice, they returned to the more familiar, simplistic, man-made idols of their immediate Egyptian past — the golden calf. Upon shaping the golden calf, Aaron declared, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).
Moses, who spent those same 40 days atop Mount Sinai with God, then descended the mountain “with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, written on both sides” (Exodus 32:15).
Who had shaped and written these tablets?
“The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God” (Exodus 32:16). Carrying in his hand the weight of “God’s word,” Moses looked down at his own brothers and sisters. “And it happened when he drew near the camp that he saw the calf and the dancing, and Moses’ wrath flared, and he flung the tablets from his hand and smashed them at the bottom of the mountain” (Exodus 32:19). In one dark moment, the fantasy of an ideal people becoming the bearers of God’s word was shattered.
Next came the challenge: Where do we go from here?
The Talmud teaches: “Rabbi Judah bar Ilai taught that two arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness — one in which the Torah was kept, and one in which the tablets broken by Moses were kept. The one in which the Torah was placed was kept in the Tent of Meeting; the other, containing the broken tablets, would come and go with them” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim, 1:1).
Yet another Talmudic teaching goes one step further, asserting that “both the new tablets of the law and the broken pieces of the first tablets were kept in the same Ark of the Covenant” (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot, 8b).
How did Moses and the Israelites move beyond their shared breakdown? Realizing their mistake and what they had potentially lost, the Israelites collected the broken remains of their first encounter with God, and they gave them to Moses. Fortunate enough to be given a second chance, Moses brought down another set of God-given tablets and placed them alongside the broken pieces.
Whether it happened the way the first Talmudic teaching describes (separate arks) or the second teaching tells it (the same ark), the rabbis offer us a powerful reminder that wholeness and brokenness share equal space in life. The Tablets of Testimony, in both whole and broken form, is a metaphor for the human condition — striving for perfection, all the while embracing imperfection. Both the whole and the broken are considered sacred in the Jewish tradition. They are both “God’s word.”
The great Chasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, taught: “Nothing is more whole than a broken heart.”
Failures, broken dreams and shattered fantasies are an inevitable and natural part of life. In fact, the “shattering of tablets” is often a necessary gateway through which we must pass in order to reach the greater heights that we seek in life.
Through the episode of the golden calf and the broken tablets, Moses and the Israelites teach us that even after openly defying God’s word, it is still possible to pick up the pieces and start over again. l
Daniel Bouskila is the rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, a nondenominational modern/traditional Sephardic synagogue in Westwood. You can read his blog at rabbidanielbouskila.blogspot.com.