Possibly one of the most “dramatic” moments in the Torah appears in this week’s Parsha. We all know what happened. Moshe Rabeinu, after hearing that Bnei Yisrael have sinned with chet ha’egel and after first praying for their forgiveness then descends Har Sinai.
“Now Moshe turned and went down from the mountain [bearing] the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets inscribed from both their sides; on one side and on the other side they were inscribed.
Now the tablets were G-d’s work, and the inscription was G-d’s inscription, engraved on the tablets…
Now it came to pass when he drew closer to the camp and saw the calf and the dances, that Moshe’s anger was kindled, and he flung the tablets from his hands, shattering them at the foot of the mountain“.
A careful look at the verse also seems to suggest that Moshe did not merely drop the Luchot, but deliberately cast them down – “va’yashlech”, and then shattered them -va’yeshaberotam”.
Various different explanations have been offered for Moshe’s deliberate breaking of the Luchot.
The Rashbam and others explain that Moshe “tashkocho” meaning that his strength was exhausted, and he could no longer bear the weight of the Luchot. The Rashbam explains that the simple explanation is that since he could no longer carry the weight of the Luchot, seeing Am Yisrael around the golden calf, he therefore flung them away from himself so that he would not be hurt by the shattering of the stones.
The Sforno and the Malbim both emphasize the point that Moshe sees not only the egel, but also the “mecholot” – the dancing and rejoicing that was going on around it – and realized that in their situation, Bnei Yisrael were not worthy of the Luchot.
One of the most forceful comments on this verse was made by Rav Meir Simcha Hacohen in his commentary on Chumash, the Meshech Chochmah. In a long essay he explains the reasons and dynamics of Avodah Zarah. The difficulty in comprehending the essence of an incorporeal G-d is what leads man to try and realize G-d in a physical way. That realization for Bnei Yisrael was in Moshe, who was the leader of their redemption from Egypt and brought to them the word of G-d. Once Moshe had gone, they needed to replace their fruition of realizing G-d in someone or something new – hence the creation of an egel, a calf.
When Moshe descends from Har Sinai, he wants to instill in Bnei Yisrael the magnitude of their misunderstanding. The only Kedusha is that of G-d alone. All other Kedushot in the world derive their Kedusha from G-d alone. Moshe understood that when Bnei Yisrael would receive the Luchot, they, the Luchot, would replace the egel and become the physical realization of G-d in the world. In order to eradicate this belief, Moshe throws down the Luchot and then proceeds to shatter them completely, showing Bnei Yisrael that the kedusha does not exist in objects or people, but only in G-d himself, and obedience to him is what is kadosh – holy.
This lesson of Moshe to the people was an ongoing one that apparently Bnei Yisrael always had difficulty internalizing. According to the Meshech Chochma, in numerous places in his commentary on Chumash, this misconception was at the root of many if not almost all the shortcomings of the generation of the wilderness. The sin of the spies was caused by the people’s over-reliance on the “kedusha” of Moshe and ultimately Moshe was not “allowed” into the land out of the fear that he would turn into an idol and alternative to G-d himself.
The last verses in the Chumash portray the uniqueness and greatness of Moshe Rabeinu:
“And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Lord had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land,
and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.”
On the words “before the eyes of all Israel” Rashi comments:
“before the eyes of all Israel: [This expression alludes to the incident where] his heart stirred him up to smash the tablets before their eyes, as it is said, ‘and I shattered them before your eyes’ (Deut. 9:17). – [Sifrei 33:41] And [regarding Moses shattering the Tablets,] the Holy One Blessed is He gave His approval, as Scripture states, ‘[the first Tablets] which you shattered’ (Exod. 34:1); [God said to Moses:] ‘Well done for shattering them!’.”
The final words in the Torah, the final words of Rashi, the highest praise of Moshe, all come back to this! According to the Meshech Chochmah, this is because of the importance and centrality of the lesson of the breaking of the Luchot.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe however had difficulty accepting that the Torah would end with that message and that was the ultimate praise of Moshe Rabeinu. Albeit its importance – ultimately it is bringing us back to chet ha’egel – a negative experience. A lot of the commentators on Rashi also shared this difficulty and so explained that Rashi therefore adds the words “And [regarding Moses shattering the Tablets,] the Holy One Blessed is He gave His approval” suggesting that the praise of Moshe was his attaining a level where G-d subsequently agrees with his actions.
The Rebbe explains differently why this verse is the ultimate praise of Moshe Rabeinu, and also sheds a completely different light on the motivation of Moshe when breaking the Luchot. After reading all the commentators on this incident, one is left with the impression of a stern and severe leader who is almost unforgiving of his people’s sin. However, Rashi, also in this week’s Parsha comments:
“And the Lord said to Moshe: “Hew for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones. And I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.
Rashi: Hew for yourself: You broke the first ones. You hew others for yourself. This can be compared to a king who went abroad and left his betrothed with the maidservants. Because of the immoral behavior of the maidservants, she acquired a bad reputation. Her bridesman [the person appointed to defend the bride should any problems arise] arose and tore up her marriage contract. He said, “If the king decides to kill her, I will say to him, ‘She is not yet your wife.’” The king investigated and discovered that only the maidservants were guilty of immoral behavior. He [therefore] became appeased to her. So her bridesman said to him, “Write her another marriage contract because the first one was torn up.” The king replied to him, “You tore it up. You buy yourself another [sheet of] paper, and I will write to her with my [personal] hand [writing].” Likewise, the king represents the Holy One, blessed is He. The maidservants represent the mixed multitude. The bridesman is Moshe, and the betrothed of the Holy One, blessed is He, is Israel. That is why it says: “Hew for yourself.””
In other words, when G-d wished to destroy the Jewish people because of their involvement in the worship of the egel, Moshe smashed the tablets — G-d’s “wedding contract” with the Jewish people — thereby dissolving the marriage-bond that they had allegedly violated. This left G-d no grounds on which to punish His “bride’s” unfaithfulness.
According to Rashi, the incentive of Moshe when breaking the Luchot was to save Bnei Yisrael. Obviously the kedusha of the luchot was paramount in the eyes of Moshe, however when the existence of the Luchot could endanger the people, Moshe immediately breaks them. The Rebbe also emphasizes that this was to save even the most low-down of the people, the ones responsible for the sin.
Indeed the ultimate praise of Moshe Rabeinu is his willingness, not only of self-sacrifice for Am Yisrael, “And now, if You forgive their sin But if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written,” but moreover his willingness to “break the Torah” for their sake. The final words of the Torah about Moshe are about his limitless Ahavat Yisrael and concern for even his rebellious people.
 Shmot 32: 16;19.
 Rashbam Shmot ibid.
 Chizkuni ibid, see also Ibn Ezra ibid.
 Meshech Chochma ibid.
 Devarim 34; 10-12.
 Rashi ibid.
 Likutei Sichot 34; pp. 217-223.
See Likuei Sichot Ibid for a discussion of the Philosophical implications of such an action.