“As he approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses was angry. He threw down the tablets that were in his hand, shattering them at the foot of the mountain.” (Ex. 32:19)
Why did Moses need to break the luchot? He could have set them aside for a later time, when the Jewish people would be worthy of them. The Torah does not record that God criticized Moses for destroying the holy tablets. According to the Talmud, God even complemented Moses for this act: “Yashar Kochacha that you broke them” (Shabbat 87a). Why did they have to be broken?
The question becomes stronger when we note the exceptional nature of these unique luchot. They were “the handiwork of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the Tablets” (Ex. 32:16). The second luchot did not possess this extraordinary level of sanctity. When God desired that a second set of tablets be prepared, He commanded Moses, “Carve out two tablets for yourself” (Ex. 34:1), emphasizing that these tablets were to be man-made. Furthermore, unlike the engraved writing of the first luchot, God said, “I will write the words on the tablets” (ibid). The letters were written, not engraved, on the second tablets, like ink on paper. Why were the second luchot made differently?
Beyond Man-Made Morality
The two sets of luchot correspond to two different paths to serve God.
The first path is when we utilize our natural capabilities to live an ethical life. We perform good deeds and acts of kindness out of a natural sense of justice and morality.
However, God meant for the Jewish people to aspire to a much higher level, above that which can be attained naturally, beyond the ethical dictates of our intellect. It is not enough to help the needy, for example, because of natural feelings of compassion. This is praiseworthy. But a higher path is to help those in need because through this act one fulfills ratzon Hashem, God’s will.
Any ethical achievements that are the product of human nature are like a candle’s feeble light in the bright midday sun when compared to the Divine light that can be gained through these same actions. The loftier path is when the Torah is the light that illuminates one’s soul. We do not follow the Torah because its teachings match our sense of morality, but due to our soul’s complete identification soul with the Torah, which is ratzon Hashem.
The Sages hinted to this level in the Passover Haggadah. “If God had brought us near to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, it would be enough [to praise Him].” What was so wonderful about being near Mount Sinai?
As the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai, prepared to accept the Torah, God planted in their souls a readiness to fulfill His will. This preparation was similar to the natural inclination of moral individuals to perform acts of kindness.
This explanation sheds light on a difficult verse in Mishlei: “Charity will uplift a nation, but the kindness of the nations is a sin” (Proverbs 14:34). According to the Talmud in Shabbat 146a, “Charity will uplift a nation” — this refers to the Jewish people, while “the kindness of the nations is a sin” — this refers to other nations. What is so terrible about the kindness of the nations?
Performing acts of kindness and charity out of a natural sense of compassion is certainly appropriate and proper for other nations. For the Jewish people, however, such a motivation is considered a chatat — it ‘misses the mark.’ The path meant for the Jewish people is a higher and loftier one.
Under the Mountain
After receiving the Torah and before the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people were like angelic beings (Ps. 82:6, Shemot Rabbah 32:1). They sensed ratzon Hashem with such clarity, that their desire to do good was not based on ethical character traits, but because the light of God and His will that could be found in such acts. Their souls completely identified with the light of Torah.
At that point in time, they deserved the first set of luchot. These tablets were the work of God, just as their own natural inclinations matched ratzon Hashem. And the writing was engraved in the tablets themselves, not a separate material like ink on paper. So too, their souls were united and identified with God’s will.
Their state was so elevated, their holiness was so intrinsic, that they were almost at a level beyond sin, like natural objects that cannot change their ways. This is the meaning of the Talmudic statement that the Jewish people stood literally “under the mountain” (Ex. 19:17), i.e., that God coerced them to accept the Torah as He raised the mountain over their heads. This metaphor alludes to a state whereby their inner connection to the Torah was so strong, that they lacked true free will whether to accept the Torah.
The Golden Calf
But for the Erev Rav, the mixed multitudes of peoples who left Egypt with the Israelites, this elevated service was simply too lofty. They felt it sufficient to aspire to the regular level of ethical perfection, based on human emotions and intellect. Therefore, the Erev Rav demanded a physical representation of God. They wanted a service of God rooted in that which one can feel and sense, the natural feelings of human compassion and kindness.
Tragically, the Erev Rav succeeded in convincing the Israelites to abandon their sublime level. Even worse, as they relied on their natural sense of morality, even this level was lost due to undisciplined desires. They descended into a state of complete moral disarray — “Moses saw the people were unrestrained” (Ex. 32:25) — and transgressed the most serious offenses: idolatry, incest, and murder.
After the Jewish people left their elevated state, they required a new path of Divine service. But as long as the covenant of the first luchot existed, no other covenant could take its place. Moses realized that they would not be able to return to that lofty state until the end of days. The first luchot needed to be destroyed so that a new covenant could be made.
Interestingly, the Torah specifically mentions that Moses destroyed the tablets “under the mountain.” The first luchot belonged to their unique spiritual state of “under the mountain,” when God’s will was so deeply set in their souls that they had little choice but accept the Torah.
The Half Shekel
The covenant of the second luchot signifies a lower path of serving God, one closer to our natural faculties. Thus the second tablets combined both man-made and heavenly aspects. The stone tablets were carved out by Moses, but written upon with Divine script.
God nonetheless desired to give us at least some residual form of the loftier service of the first luchot. For this reason we have the mitzvah of donating a half-shekel coin to the Temple, thus connecting every Jew with the holy service in the Temple. The donation, the Torah emphasizes, must come from the shekel hakodesh, from the highest motives, for God’s sake alone — “an offering to God” (Ex. 30:13). The Torah introduces this mitzvah with the words, “When you will raise the heads of the Israelites.” This indicates that this mitzvah raises up the Jewish people to their original holy level, when they encamped near Mount Sinai.
(Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 298-305