Thoughts on Ki Tissa 2019
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As his forty-day rendezvous with God drew to an end, Moshe received the luhot:
And He gave Moshe when He had finished speaking with him on Har Sinai the two tablets of the Covenant, tablets of stone written by the finger of God. (Shemot 32:18)
Those days were filled with deep dialogue, and now – “when He had finished speaking with him” – Moshe was handed a physical manifestation of Torah. Receiving the luhot, then, represented the shift from a spoken mode of transmission to one that was textual. The luhot were, in the words of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, “the permanent residue of a dialogue between God and man.”
Descending Har Sinai and encountering the panicked people of Am Yisrael, however, Moshe reflected upon the dangers of a system that could potentially deemphasize presence and dialogue. It was, after all, Moshe’s absence that inspired het ha-egel:
And the people saw that Moshe lagged in coming down from the mountain, and the people assembled against Aharon and said to him: “Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” (32:1)
And so, Moshe then “flung the tablets from his hand and smashed them at the bottom of the mountain” (32:20). Realizing the importance of personal involvement to the Torah’s transmission and fearing the danger of a potentially “impersonal” growth by means of the “speechless” luhot, Moshe sought their immediate destruction.
The Hakhamim famously portrayed the altered reality that resulted from smashing the luhot: “If the tablets had not been broken, Torah would not have been forgotten in Israel.” Surprisingly, however, Ibn Ezra cited from R. Saadia Gaon, who contended that the second luhot were in fact greater than the first ones that he smashed. Basing himself on several midrashim, Nessiv explained that the second luhot differed from the first by introducing the reality of Torah she-be-al peh – the Oral Law. While Moshe received a vast knowledge of Torah and its laws at the time that he received the first set of tablets, the possibility of future interpretation and creative commentary, as transmitted from teacher to student, was born only with the second luhot.
The first luhot were “God’s doing” (32:16), which represented an explicit reception from God and the impossibility of forgetting. The second tablets, in contrast, were crafted by Moshe (34:1) and prone to the human reality of forgetting, thus emerging as the forebearer of oral transmission.
Indeed, in the aftermath of het ha-egel Moshe seemed focused on the restoration of God’s presence amongst the people. He moved the Tent, and named it “Ohel Mo’ed – the Tent of Meeting”:
And Moshe would take the Tent and pitch it outside the camp, far from the camp, and he called it Ohel Mo’ed (the Tent of Meeting). And so, whoever sought God would go out to Ohel Mo’ed which was outside the camp. (33:7)
And the nation understood and appreciated his own dialogue with God:
And so, when Moshe would go out to the Tent, all the people would rise and each man would station himself at the entrance of his tent and they would look after Moshe until he came to the Tent. And so, when Moshe would come to the Tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stand at the entrance of the Tent and speak with Moshe. And all the people would see the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the Tent, and all the people would rise and bow down each man at the entrance of his tent. (33:8-10)
Am Yisrael then learned that transmitting the Torah entailed more than merely passing down a text; it required presence and dialogue:
And God would speak to Moshe face-to-face, as a man speaks to his fellow. (33:11)
In her best-selling book Alone Together, psychologist Sherry Turkle pointed to a particular digression that has emerged with our smartphones. The invention of the first telephones, she observed, enhanced our long-distance expressions of emotion by moving us from the impersonal texts of letters and telegrams to sharing our actual voices. Our smartphones, in contrast, depersonalize even our short-distance expressions of emotion by replacing our voices with the words and letters of text-messages, emails and Twitter posts. Turkle quoted a friend, who remarked: “We cannot all write like Lincoln or Shakespeare, but even the least gifted among us has this incredible instrument, our voice, to communicate the range of human emotion. Why would we deprive ourselves of that?”
The failure of the first luhot stemmed from feelings of absence – Moshe’s immediate disappearance from the people, and the potential of God’s transcendence “when He had finished speaking with him.” And so, the creation of the second luhot and all that then ensued were meant to restore those lost feelings of communion and conversation. In a world that increasingly reverts to a reality akin to the first luhot, perhaps it is time to contemplate the enduring lesson of the second tablets and restore presence and dialogue to our lives.