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Moses’ Choice

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I came down from the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire; and the two Tablets of the Covenant were in my two hands. And I saw that, behold, you had sinned against the L-rd your G-d, and had made yourselves a molten calf; you had quickly turned from the path which G-d had commanded you. I grabbed hold of the two Tablets and threw them from my two hands; and I broke them before your eyes.

Deuteronomy 9:15-17

Since Moses already held the Tablets of the Covenant in his hands, why did he have to “grab hold” of them in order to break them? The Midrash explains that Moses was not the only one holding onto the Tablets:

The Tablets were each six handbreadths long and three handbreadths wide. Moses held two handbreadths [of the Tablets’ length], G-d held two handbreadths, and in between were two handbreadths of space. Moses’ hands prevailed, and he grabbed hold of the Tablets and broke them.[1]

No human being is more deeply identified with the Torah than Moses. “Remember the Torah of Moses My servant,”[2] declares the prophet Malachi, and our sages explain: “Because he gave his life for it, [G-d’s Torah] is called by his name.”[3] “Moses our Teacher” we call him, for the very essence of his life was the mission to receive the divine law at Mount Sinai and deliver it to humanity. What, then, prompted him, as he carried the Torah down from the mountain, to literally wrest it from G-d’s hands and smash it to pieces?

“Before Your Eyes”

The “punch line” is a common device by which to lend import and prominence to an idea: a speaker or writer will position the crux of his message, or its most emphatic point, in his closing words. The Torah, too, employs this device, and a general rule of Torah law and exegesis is that “Everything goes by the ending.”[4]

It is therefore most surprising to discover that, according to the greatest of Torah commentators, the Torah’s own closing words are in praise of Moses’ decision to break the Tablets.

The last chapter of the Torah (Deuteronomy 34:1-12) describes the last day of Moses’ physical life. Indeed, this is a most apt “ending” for the “Torah of Moses,” since Jewish tradition regards the moment of a righteous person’s passing as the high point of his or her life—the point at which “all his deeds, teachings and works” attain their ultimate fulfillment and realization.[5] But then, after describing Moses’ survey of the Holy Land from the summit of Mount Nebo, his passing, and burial, the Torah’s final verses recount the highlights of Moses’ life and his greatest achievements:

And there arose not since a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom G-d knew face to face; [who performed] all the signs and wonders which G-d sent [Moses] to do in the land of Egypt… [who equaled] that mighty hand, those great fearsome deeds, [and] that which Moses did before the eyes of all Israel.[6]

To what deed of Moses does the Torah refer with its closing words, “which Moses did before the eyes of all Israel”? Employing a method of Torah interpretation known as “identical phraseology,”[7] Rashi, the greatest of commentators on Torah, sees these words as an allusion to the breaking of the Tablets, which Moses describes in a previous chapter as something which he did “before the eyes” of Israel:

“That which Moses did before the eyes of all Israel”—that his heart emboldened him to break the Tablets before their eyes, as it is written, “[I grabbed hold of the two Tablets and threw them from my two hands] and I broke them before your eyes.”[8]

At first glance it would seem that this act of Moses, however necessary or even desirable it may have been, was antithetical to his role as conveyer of Torah, as well as detrimental to the Torah’s own role of serving as G-d’s instruction to humanity. Yet the Torah makes this the final item in its account of Moses’ life, as well as its own “ending.” In other words, if we assume that indeed “everything goes by the ending,” not only is the Torah saying that it regards the breaking of the Tablets as the most important deed of Moses’ life, but also that the most important thing it has to say about itself is that it regards the breaking of the Tablets as the most important deed of Moses’ life!

The Marriage Contract

There was once a king—relates the Midrash—who went off on a distant journey and left his bride with her maidservants. Because of the promiscuity of the maidservants, rumors began circulating about the king’s bride. The king heard of this and wished to kill her. When the bride’s guardian heard this, he tore up her marriage contract, saying: “Should the king say, ‘My wife did such and such,’ we shall say to him, ‘She’s not your wife yet.'”[9]

The king in this parable—the Midrash goes on to explain— is G-d, the bride is the nation of Israel, the corrupt maids are the eirev rav (the “mixed multitude” who had joined the Jewish people at the Exodus and were responsible for the making of the Golden Calf), the bride’s guardian is Moses, and the marital contract is the Torah. When G-d wished to destroy Israel because of their involvement in the worship of the Golden Calf, Moses broke the Tablets upon which G-d had transcribed the essence of His covenant with them, thereby dissolving the marriage-bond that Israel had allegedly violated and leaving G-d no grounds on which to punish His bride’s unfaithfulness.

And this the Torah considers to be Moses’ highest virtue: his unequivocal loyalty to the Jewish people, a loyalty even greater than his loyalty to the Torah. When the very existence of the Jewish people was threatened, Moses tore up the wedding contract in order to save the bride.

When the existence of Israel was in jeopardy, Moses did not consult with anyone, not even with G-d. When Moses had to choose between the Torah and Israel, his devotion to Israel superseded all—including that which defines the very essence of his own being.

It is for this reason that Moses’ breaking of the Tablets was the greatest deed of his life. In everything else he did, he was acting on a clear mandate from G-d: G-d had instructed and empowered him to take the Jews out of Egypt, to split the Red Sea, and to transmit His wisdom and will to humanity. Always it was G-d’s desire that he followed. Here, it was his own initiative. Here, he wrestled with G-d, “grabbing hold” of the Tablets to save the people of Israel.

In breaking the Tablets, Moses was acting on his own, contrary to his divine mission to deliver G-d’s Torah to the world. In breaking the Tablets, Moses, who could not presume that G-d would replace the first Tablets with a second pair, was eradicating his very being, his very raison d’être, for the sake of his people.

And Moses did not go off to a corner to carry out the most painful and potentially self-destructive act of his life. He broke the Tablets “before the eyes of all Israel”—a fact which the Torah repeatedly emphasizes, and then reiterates in its concluding words. For Moses wished to demonstrate to all of Israel, and to all generations to come, the duty of a leader of the Jewish people: to be prepared not only to sacrifice his physical life for his flock, but his very soul and spiritual essence as well.

First Among Firsts

Not only does the Torah record that G-d endorsed Moses’ breaking of the Tablets; not only does it proclaim that Moses’ greatest deed was his placing the preservation of Israel above the integrity of their “marriage contract”; it also chooses to make this its own culminating message. With its closing words the Torah establishes that it sees its own existence as secondary to the existence of the people of Israel.

The Midrash says it thus:

Two things preceded G-d’s creation of the world: Torah and Israel. Still, I do not know which preceded which. But when Torah states ‘Speak to the Children of Israel…,’ ‘Command the Children of Israel…’—I know that Israel preceded all.[10]

In other words, since the purpose of G-d’s creation of the universe is that the people of Israel should implement His will as outlined in the Torah, the concepts of “Israel” and “Torah” both precede the concept of a “world” in the Creator’s “mind.” Yet which is the more deeply rooted idea within the divine consciousness, Torah or Israel? Does Israel exist so that the Torah may be implemented, or does the Torah exist to serve the Jew in the fulfillment of his mission and the realization of his relationship with G-d?

Says the Midrash: if the Torah describes itself as a communication to Israel, this presumes the concept of Israel as primary to that of Torah. Without the people of Israel to implement it, there cannot be a Torah, since the very idea of a Torah was conceived by the divine mind as a tool to facilitate the bond between G-d and His people.

Hence, when the Torah speaks of the shattering of the Tablets, it speaks not of its own destruction, but, ultimately, of its preservation: if the breaking of the Tablets saved Israel from extinction, it also saved the Torah from extinction, since the very concept of a “Torah” is dependent upon the existence of the people of Israel.[11]

Pressing for Redemption

Moses’ self-negating devotion to his people characterized his leadership from its very start. When G-d first appeared to Moses in the burning bush and commanded him to take the Jewish people out of Egypt, Moses refused. For seven days and nights Moses argued with G-d. Don’t send me, pleaded Moses, “Send the one whom You will send.”[12]

“G-d’s anger raged against Moses,” the Torah tells us.[13] Understandably so: the people of Israel are languishing under the Egyptian whip, and G-d’s chosen redeemer is refusing his commission? Still Moses argued with G-d to “Send the one whom You will send” instead of himself. Why did Moses refuse to go? Was it his humility? True, the Torah attests that “Moses was the most humble man on the face of the earth.”[14] But surely Moses was not one to allow his humility to interfere with the salvation of his people.

Our sages explain that Moses knew that he would not merit to bring Israel into the Holy Land and thereby achieve the ultimate redemption of his people.[15] He knew that Israel would again be exiled, would again suffer the physical and spiritual afflictions of galut. So Moses refused to go. Do not send me, he pleaded; send now the one whom You will send in the end of days. If the time for Israel’s redemption has come, send Moshiach, through whom You will effect the complete and eternal Redemption.[16]For seven days and nights Moses contested G-d’s script for history, prepared to incur G-d’s wrath upon himself for the sake of his people.

Nor did Moses ever accept the decree of galut. After assuming, by force of the divine command, the mission to take Israel out of Egypt, he embarked on a lifelong struggle to make this the final and ultimate Redemption. To the very last day of his life, Moses beseeched G-d to allow him to lead Israel into the Holy Land, which would have settled Israel in their land, and G-d in Israel’s midst, for all eternity;[17] to his very last day he braved G-d’s anger in his endeavor to effect the ultimate Redemption. In Moses’ own words: “I beseeched G-d at that time, saying: …’Please, let me cross over and see the good land across the Jordan, the good mountain (Jerusalem) and the Levanon (the Holy Temple).’ And G-d grew angry with me for your sakes… and He said to me: ‘Enough! Speak no more to Me of this matter.…'”[18]

G-d said “Enough!” but Moses was not silenced. For Moses’ challenge of the divine plan did not end with his passing from physical life. The Zohar tells us that every Jewish soul has at its core a spark of Moses’ soul.[19] So every Jew who storms the gates of heaven clamoring for redemption continues Moses’ struggle against the decree of galut.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Simchat Torah of 5747 (1986) and on other occasions[20]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1] Midrash Tanchuma, Eikev 11; Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 4:5.

[2] Malachi 3:22.

[3] Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 30:4

[4] Talmud, Berachot 12a.

[5] Tanya, part IV, section 27; cf. Ecclesiastes 7:1: “Greater is … the day of death than the day of birth.”

[6] Deuteronomy 34:10-12.

[7] Gezeirah shavah; i.e., an identical phrase (in this case, “before the eyes”) appearing in two places in the Torah points to a similar meaning in both cases; The gezeirah shavah is one of the “Thirteen Methods of Torah Interpretation.”

[8] Rashi on Deuteronomy 34:12.

[9] Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tissa 30 (a slightly different version is cited by Rashi in his commentary on Exodus 34:1).

The Midrash continues the metaphor to explain why G-d instructed that Moses himself carve the Second Tablets, which replaced the ones he broke (the First Tablets were “the handiwork of G-d”):

“The king subsequently investigated and found that the corruption came from the maidservants, and was reconciled with his bride. Said the bride’s guardian to the king: ‘Sir, make her another marriage contract, for the first one was torn up.’ Said the king to him: ‘You tore it up, so you supply the paper and I shall write on it with my hand’ … Thus, when G-d forgave [the Jewish people], He said to Moses: ‘Carve, yourself, two tablets of stone [like the first ones, and I shall write on these tablets what was on the first tablets, which you have broken].'”

[10] Tana D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah chapter 14.

[11] Thus, the entire Torah is set aside to save a Jewish life. In the words of the Talmud, “Desecrate a single Shabbat for his sake, so that he may observe many subsequent Shabbatot” (Talmud, Shabbat 151b). Here, too, a “violation” of the Shabbat is seen as its ultimate preservation.

On the other hand, “Israel, though he has transgressed, is still Israel” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 44a). The intrinsic bond between G-d and His people is actualized through their observance of Torah, but is not dependent upon it; even when a Jew violates the Torah, G-d forbid, his identity as a Jew is unaffected. Thus we have the concept of teshuvah (“return”): also when a Jew has damaged his relationship with G-d as defined by Torah, he can supersede Torah’s definition of the relationship and reawaken it through the yearning, regret and resolve of teshuvah.

[12] Exodus 4:13.

[13] Ibid., verse 14.

[14] Numbers 12:3

[15] See note 17 below

[16] Rashi on Exodus 4:13; Midrash Lekach Tov, ibid

[17] “The deeds of Moses are eternal” (Talmud, Sotah 9a; thus the Mishkan, the sanctuary that Moses built in the desert, was never destroyed). If Moses would have settled the people of Israel in their land, there would have been no subsequent exiles (Megalleh Amukot, section 185; see Alshich and Ohr HaChaim commentaries on Deuteronomy 4:23).

[18] Deuteronomy 4:23-26.

[19] Tikkunei Zohar 69, pp. 112a and 114a; see Tanya ch. 44.

[20] Hitvaaduyot 5747, vol. I, pp. 349-359; Sefer HaSichot, vol. II, pp. 728-730. Editor’s note: The Rebbe wept profusely during the Simchat Torah address, describing Moses’ breaking of the tablets in a voice choked with tears.

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