From Golden Calf to Red Heifer – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
We have all attended weddings and shouted a hearty mazal tov at the sound of breaking glass. As some contemporary Rabbis feel the need to clarify, it is not an entirely appropriate comment to be made at that point, as the glass is broken in commemoration of Yerushalayim and the Bet Hamikdash. There is another less familiar explanation for this custom based on a Gemara in Berachot (30b). Mar bar Ravina, concerned at the incorrect nature of the celebrations at the wedding of his son, took a crystal glass and threw it onto the ground. At the sound of the loud crash, the guests stopped what they were doing at which point Mar told them to get a grip on themselves and move from inappropriate party mode to genuine simchat chatan vekallah. A similar story is told about Rav Ashi at the wedding of his son.
This story from the Gemara could be employed to explain one of the episodes in this week’s parsha. Why was it that Moshe, on his descent from Har Sinai, elected to smash the Luchot Haberit, tablets which as the Torah testifies, were carved and engraved upon by God Himself? As in the case above, it could be that Moshe did this to grab the nation’s attention in order that he could subsequently rebuke them for their sin of the golden calf, and begin the process that would lead to their forgiveness. This suggestion, as novel as it is, does not address why Moshe would choose to break the Luchot rather than something else. Granted, smashing the Luchot would gain Am Yisrael’s immediate attention, but we get the sense that Moshe may have had additional motives for his actions.
Many of the mefarshim have grappled with this issue; we will suffice with a small selection. Rashi, quoting chazal, uses a logical equation to explain Moshe’s actions. The Torah has already informed us that the Pesach sacrifice cannot be eaten by a non Jew. It follows therefore that if a non Jew is proscribed from performing one mitzvah, then at present, when all of Am Yisrael are acting as apostates, the entire Torah (as represented by the Luchot) cannot be given to them. In a similar vein, Seforno states that Moshe, on witnessing the joy in which the people were dancing around the Egel and the extent of their sin, became angry and despaired of the possibility that they would ever return to God and so smashed the tablets.
Both the suggestions above relate Moshe’s decision to the sin of the people and the fact that they were not worthy of receiving the Luchot. Whilst we can explain that though Moshe had heard from Hashem about the sin, he did not internalize the extent of the people’s actions until he saw what was going on with his own eyes, we still find these positions difficult. Albeit Moshe may have been surprised at what he saw on descending the mountain but surely Hashem knew the degree to which Am Yisrael had sinned. Despite this, God had given Moshe the Luchot and not instructed for them to be broken or returned. How then could Moshe make the decision to smash them when God had given no indication that such was his wish?
A different notion is found in several midrashim which compare the covenant at Har Sinai to a marriage between the bride, Am Yisrael and God, the groom. These midrashim relate to the Luchot Haberit as the marriage document or ketuba and state that in an attempt to lessen the sin of the nation, Moshe destroyed this document thus, in effect, annulling the marriage. By doing this, Am Yisrael were not “married” to God but merely betrothed or possibly less than that and so the repercussions of their sin were less severe.
It is interesting to note that as opposed to the comments of Rashi and Seforno who claim that Moshe found Am Yisrael’s sin to be so grave that they were not fit to receive the Luchot, the midrashim see Moshe’s actions as an attempt to save Am Yisrael from punishment and even to restore their relationship with Hashem.
A third suggestion is posited by the early twentieth century commentator, Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his work Meshech Chochma. If we examine the reasons for the sin of the Golden Calf we find two main camps. Those who believe that Am Yisrael committed real idolatry (Rashi) and those who claim that Am Yisrael were merely searching for an intermediary between them and Hashem in Moshe’s absence (Ramban). If we merge the two approaches, we could explain the order of events in the following manner. The people, who had become used to Moshe acting as the middle-man between them and God, panicked when Moshe did not appear at the expected time and so sought an alternative method to connect with the Almighty. However, once the Golden Calf had emerged and the festivities began, they soon forgot that the Egel was intended to serve as a vehicle to reach God and ended up worshipping the Egel itself. What began as an attempt to connect to God, albeit one based on misguided ideas, ended in neglecting God and the worship of a molten image instead. What in essence had happened was that the means had become the end itself. The Meshech Chochma explains that on arriving at the scene of the sin, Moshe quickly came to the realization that the exact mistake Am Yisrael made with the Golden Claf could be committed with respect to the Luchot too. In his words, if Moshe would have handed the Luchot to the people at that point “hayu kemachlifim egel beluach”, they would have swapped the calf for the tablet, they would have made the exact same mistake with the Luchot Haberit. Instead of treating them as a symbol through which they could get close to Hashem, they would have attributed Divine powers to the Luchot themselves and so worshipped them and thereby forget God. In anticipation of this danger, Moshe chose to smash the Luchot, not despite the fact that they came from God but because they came from God. Even these Luchot, carved and written by God Himself, served no purpose of their own. They too were a mere vehicle in our Avodat Hashem.
This idea could explain the midrash which states that Hashem agreed with Moshe’s actions in breaking the Luchot. In addition, we can now understand why the broken pieces of the first set of tablets were placed in the Aron Kodesh at the heart of the Mishkan and subsequently the Bet HaMikdash. It is crucial that we understand that the Aron and the entire Mishkan were not themselves to be served but were all part of a system of symbols and vehicles to help us relate to God and worship Him. The comments of the Meshech Chochma have obvious ramifications for all of our Avodat Hashem. We, too, revere the Sefer Torah and the Aron Kodesh. We, too, daven at the Kotel and other holy sites. We must never forget that these are mere instruments we employ in order to cling to God; they are a means to an end and the end is our relationship with Hashem.
This week we will also be reading the third of the four parshiot, Parshat Parah. This section deals with the preparation and use of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, in the purification process of a person who has been contaminated by coming into contact with a dead body. The Parah Adumah is often seen as the archetype “chok, statute” and therefore we do not need to offer a rationale for this somewhat mystical mitzvah. The midrash however makes a thematic connection between the Red Heifer and the Golden Calf stating that the former is a type of atonement for the latter. What form does this atonement take?
Rav Moshe Lichtenstein explains that the Parah Adumah is a form of anti-korban. On the one hand, its blood is sprinkled in the Mikdash like that of other sacrifices; on the other, the body of the heifer is burned outside the camp unlike other korbanot which are consumed on the mizbeach. The specifics of the heifer are listed in distinctly sacrificial terms but its use is very different from those of other animals brought to the mikdash. In fact, it is only the ash, the remnants of the consumed heifer that we actually use and even this is watered down before being sprinkled on the person in need of purification. As Rav Moshe Lichtenstein explains, the Parah Adumah represents the balance between physical worship which forms the basis of the avoda in the mikdash and the fact that we are really trying to express a non-physical idea, that of closeness to God. Whilst we need concrete symbols through which we convey our relationship with God, there exists a danger that these will take the place of the abstract and more conceptual nature of our connection to Hashem. This balance is seen in the dual nature of the Parah Adumah.
If we return to the comments of the Meshech Chochma, we can now understand the midrash which states that the Red Heifer atones for the Golden Calf. The essence of the Parah Adumah is such that it allows us to navigate our way between the tangible symbols of Avodat Hashem and the abstract nature of our relationship with a non-physical God. This is the very message which Moshe conveyed to Am Yisrael as he smashed the Luchot Haberit. The sound of that crash should resonate in our ears till today.
Shabbat shalom – Rav Yonatan
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