V’zot Habracha: Breaking Tablets

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Simchat Torah/ Vzot Habracha

Greetings on this beautiful Hoshana Rabbah ! We’re about to go into the home stretch of the fall holidays, concluding with Simchat Torah, the festival of concluding the yearly Torah reading and immediately starting the new one. In just a few days, we’ll conclude the book of D’varim/ Deuteronomy with these verses:

“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom the Lord singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that the Lord sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moshe displayed before all Israel.” (D’varim 34:10-12)

It’s fitting that the book of D’varim concludes with the death of Moshe, the story of his burial, and final words of praise: these three verses are like a concise summary of the narrative from the beginning of Exodus through the end of the Torah, covering 40 years of sojourn. Our friend Rashi explains each piece of the last verse: the “great might” is receiving the tablets of the Torah by hand (the phrase “great might” is literally “strong hand.”) “Awesome power” is miracles in the wilderness, and “before all Israel” is. . . . . the breaking of the tablets of the law at Sinai, when Moshe came down the mountain to find the Israelites dancing before the golden calf. (Cf. D’varim 9:17 for the prooftext.)

Now, this is interesting. Of all the praises for all the great works of Moshe, the Torah concludes- according to Rashi, basing himself on an earlier midrash– with a reference to his angry breaking of the tablets at Israel’s not-finest hour?

I think Rashi wants us to remember Moshe not for his meteorological marvels but for the moral miracle of willingness to confront idolatry in all its forms- even, or perhaps especially, among his own people. Commentators suggest that these broken tablets were also carried by the Israelites from Sinai, perhaps as a reminder that the medium of Torah is not stone, parchment, or paper- but people. Moshe’s signature act of leadership, in this reading, is not his conflict with Pharaoh but his prophetic pursuit of truth even among his friends and community.

Here is Moshe in a moment of great risk: he sees his own people losing their way and breaks the very symbol of their sacred covenant if it will shock them back to consciousness. That is, indeed, a mighty miracle, but not one that comes from God- it’s one that comes from a brave heart and passionate spirit. Most of us will not encounter a burning bush, nor call forth manna from the heavens: but all of us have the opportunity to break tablets, speak bravely, and act from prophetic ethics. That, to me, is why we should always remember that Moshe’s greatest miracle was not from above, but from within: because such miracles are possible today, and perhaps needed more than ever.

Hag sameach and Shabbat Shalom,


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