27.6. Moses Shatters the Tablets and Destroys the Calf (32:15-29)
(15) Thereupon Moses turned and went down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, tablets inscribed on both their surfaces: they were inscribed on the one side and on the other.
(16) The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets.
(17) When Joshua heard the sound of the people in its boisterousness, he said to Moses, “There is a cry of war in the camp.”
(18) But he answered, “It is not the sound of the tune of triumph, Or the sound of the tune of defeat; It is the sound of song that I hear!”
(19) As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.
(20) He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.
(21) Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?”
(22) Aaron said, “Let not my lord be enraged. You know that this people is bent on evil.
(23) They said to me, ‘Make us a god to lead us; for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.’
(24) So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!”
(25) Moses saw that the people were out of control — since Aaron had let them get out of control — so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them.
(26) Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come here!” And all the Levites rallied to him.
(27) He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin.”
(28) The Levites did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day.
(29) And Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves to the Lord this day — for each of you has been against son and brother — that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.”
(15) Thereupon Moses turned and went down from the mountain: Moses descended the mountain only after he felt convinced that the people were no longer in danger of annihilation.
Bearing the two tablets of the Pact, tablets inscribed on both their surfaces: they were inscribed on the one side and on the other: The Midrash understands this to mean that, miraculously, the engraved text of the Ten Commandments could be read equivalently on both sides of the tablets, even though one and the same inscription penetrated through and through from one side of the stone tablets to the other. The symbolism is that the Torah can be perceived from many different angles and perspectives, but at the same time its essential content and meaning remain ever constant and unchanging.
(16) The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets: Both the tablets themselves and the text engraved on them were God’s work alone. In the manufacture of the first tablets there was no element of human participation.
But in the second tablets, by contrast, only the inscription was God’s, while the tablets themselves were of human origin, crafted by Moses (see 34:1 ff. and Deut. 10:1 ff.). As already noted, the first tablets could not be preserved and had to be broken precisely because of their Divine origin. When higher truths descend to the material world, they will necessarily break down. In kabbalistic terminology this is known as Shevirat Ha-Keilim, “the shattering of the vessels.”
(17) When Joshua heard the sound of the people in its boisterousness: For the entire forty days that Moses was at the summit, Joshua waited for him at the beginning of the main ascent, far from the camp.
When Joshua heard … he said to Moses, “There is a cry of war in the camp”: Because Joshua is a military man by nature, he perceives these sounds as the cries of battle.
(18) But he answered, “It is not the sound of the tune of triumph, Or the sound of the tune of defeat; It is the sound of song that I hear!”: The Hebrew expression kol ‘annot, is difficult to understand. Here it’s translated as “sound of song” but can also be translated as “sound of distress.” As explained by Rashi, the sounds Moshe hears causes him enormous pain (distress). Anyway, it’s clear that here Moses rejects Joshua’s interpretation. He feels certain that the cries in the camp, in which neither the joy of victory nor the despair of defeat are evident, are not the cries of war. And yet, Moses is himself unable to interpret accurately the sounds he is hearing.
(19) As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged: Moses already knew about the creation of the calf, but in what he was now seeing there was an additional element, the dancing, of which the Almighty had not informed Moses while he was still on the mountain. Apparently, this is why Moses could not correctly interpret the “sounds” coming from the camp. This dancing came to Moses as a shock: The people had sunk to an even lower level than he had expected to see.
Moses, while still on the mountain, and upon hearing from God about the calf, perceived it as just a “theoretically abstract” mistake: The people had erred by drawing incorrect conclusions, and had therefore worshipped improperly. Most likely, Moses thought, he only needed to speak calmly with the people and explain to them where they had gone wrong.
But here Moses is faced with reality – the people’s boisterous joy over having found for themselves an idol. Moses now understands that there is no way to “speak calmly with the people” in such a situation, and he becomes enraged. In a certain sense, all anger is, essentially, directed at oneself – arising from an awareness of one’s own failings. Moses now understands that while still on the mountain he had failed to assess the situation accurately.
Thus, what we are seeing at work here in Moses is the dissonance between what a person knows theoretically and what he experiences empirically. But Moses’ rage is in fact the correct response in this situation, because only this kind of unbridled emotional reaction could jolt the people into comprehending the severity of their mistake.
And he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain: Moses broke the tablets not only out of anger, but also because he understood that the ultimate purpose of these tablets could not be realized. These first tablets were absolutely Divine – no human being had participated in any way in their creation – and the abyss separating the Divine and the human, as it turned out, could not be bridged. The first tablets had to be broken so that new ones could then appear, in whose creation both God and man would participate.
The smashing of the first tablets was an inevitable occurrence in the process of the giving of the Torah. The first tablets were supposed to teach humanity the loftiest ideals, whose practical application in real life, however, could be realized only at the level of the second tablets. But at the same time, Tradition teaches that the shards of the first tablets were stored in the Ark of the Covenant alongside the second tablets. Their sanctity was preserved in broken form, because even as mere fragments the first tablets continued to show the people the path to God.
The process of the giving of the first tablets served to clarify which is primary, the people or the Torah. And it was determined that the people are primary. When the people do wrong, the Torah retreats and fragments. Critically decisive issues cannot be resolved theoretically, but only through a real-life crisis. A human being can resolve an existential conflict only by making real-life decisions based on personal choice. It was therefore necessary for both Moses and the people to be put in a situation from which they could extricate themselves honorably.
By smashing the tablets, Moses declares categorically that the people, and not the commandments, are paramount. While still on the mountain, Moses persuaded God to not destroy the people, and this was an important step. But Moses’ willingness even to demolish the Torah (temporarily at least), if necessary to achieve that end, demonstrates a much higher level of understanding of the relationship between the people and the Torah. No matter how serious the violation, even if the people sink so low as to become idolaters, the first priority is still to preserve their existence, because it is the only way they will have the opportunity to correct their mistake. Without the people, both the Torah and its commandments are devoid of any meaning.
(20) He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it: These measures were important for their pedagogical value. The entire people had to participate physically in utterly destroying the idol, by drinking its ashes.
(21) Moses said to Aaron: Moses first takes immediate action to destroy the calf, and only when that has been accomplished does he proceed to investigate the circumstances that led to the crime. This is clear manifestation of Moses’ leadership approach.
What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?: Even now, Moses still does not understand that Aaron on his own cannot be a leader.
(22) Aaron said, “Let not my lord be enraged. You know that this people is bent on evil: Aaron, instead of explaining himself, shifts the responsibility onto the people and blames them. But by addressing Moses as “my Lord,” Aaron emphasizes his subordinate position in relation to Moses.
(24) So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!”: Aaron portrays his role as just passively executing the will of the people.
(25) Moses saw that the people were out of control — since Aaron had let them get out of control: By now, Moses has burned the calf and made the people drink the ashes. That is, the object of the idolatry has itself already been destroyed. But Aaron’s response shows that the correction is not yet complete – because Aaron (and therefore the people) cannot accept responsibility for what happened. And therefore, the situation can be corrected only with additional “shock therapy.”
(26) Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come here!” And all the Levites rallied to him: Only the Levites respond to Moses’ call; the other tribes’ representatives are not yet ready to side with the Almighty. This too demonstrates that the problem of the calf has not yet been resolved.
(27) He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp”: Moses behaves like an absolute monarch who has the authority to execute criminals with or without a trial.
Although the fanaticism of the tribe of Levi renders it unfit to provide a ruler for the people (see Bible Dynamics on Gen. 49:5), there are situations, such as this one, where that fanaticism is exactly what is needed, and is indispensable for achieving the immediate objective.
And slay brother, neighbor, and kin: The active adherents of the calf worship had to be killed, without regard to ties of family or friendship.
(28) The Levites did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day: Only 3,000 out of 600,000 Jews turned out to be active participants in idolatry – relatively few, in other words. But since all the people supported the creation of calf, even those who did not actively participate in worshipping it, the situation could be rectified only with very tough measures.
(29) And Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves to the Lord this day … that He may bestow a blessing upon you today”: The blessing bestowed upon the Levites was that later they would be chosen to serve in the Temple. They took the place of the firstborns, who were originally slated for that honor, but showed themselves unworthy of it in the incident of the calf.