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Torah Sparks

August 16, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 (Hertz, p. 780; Etz Hayim, p. 1037)
Triennial Cycle 2: Deuteronomy 9:4-10:11 (Hertz, p. 764; Etz Hayim, p. 1042)
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14-51:3 (Hertz, p. 795; Etz Hayim, p. 1055)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Discussion Theme: Holiness

I started down the mountain, a mountain ablaze with fire, the two Tablets of the Covenant in my two hands. I saw how you had sinned against the Lord your God: you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that the Lord had enjoined upon you. Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes. (Deut. 9:15-17)


  1. Breaking the tablets expresses Moses' rage. His act also has legal significance. In Mesopotamian law the cancellation of a contract is expressed by breaking the clay tablets on which it is written. This is the equivalent of ripping up legal documents written on tearable materials. By smashing the tablets, Moses indicated that the covenant was annulled because the people had violated one of its most fundamental conditions. Relations between God and Israel were severed. (Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary, Deut. 9:17)
  2. The dazzled joy of the dancing exposes a hidden truth. One manner of expressing that truth is articulated by Sefath Emeth: the letters, the words of God, have left no deep imprint in their hearts. A deeper desire possesses them: for any object, any fetish, with which they can lose their self-consciousness, their entrapment in time. If Moses, as idealized object, has failed them, they turn to the Golden Calf in a reflexive motion towards an idiom of their time. For Moses, this moment is one of traumatic, retroactive understanding. The orgiastic release of the people's dancing tells him what his own role has been for them. This is the profound loneliness that leads him to smash the tablets. For he realizes that the fetishism that he is witnessing represents a fantasy in which he too figured. His loneliness is born of the distance between the person and the uses to which the persona is put. Moses, therefore, smashes the tablets, not in pique, but in a tragic realization that a people so hungry for absolute possession may make a fetish of the tablets as well. The whole narrative of redemption has now been pathologically restructured for him: the tablets of revelation take on the macabre lineaments of another idol. (Aviva Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture)
  3. Everything that is holy-the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, etc. - is more than an aspect of the Torah, and it is sanctified by the holiness of the Torah. Do not imagine that the Temple and the Sanctuary are holy in and of themselves, God forbid! God dwells amongst His people, and if they transgress His covenant, they (the Temple and the Sanctuary) are bereft of their holiness and become as profane objects. The tablets, bearing the writing of God, are also not holy in and of themselves; it is only for you that they are holy, and when the bride goes whoring from her canopy they become no more than pieces of clay; they are not holy in and of themselves, but only for you, if you keep the commandments engraved upon them In sum, there is nothing holy in the world. Only God is holy, and it is Him who is befitting of praise and worship. Holiness inheres in no created thing, except insofar as the people of Israel keeps the Torah in accordance with the will of the Creator. (Meshech Chochmah on Exodus 32:19)
  4. Holiness lies in keeping the commandments as it says in Deut. 28:9, "The Lord will establish you as His holy people." (Ibn Ezra on Deut. 28:9)
  5. The Land of Israel is the holiest land. And in what does its holiness consist? In that the omer and the first-fruits and the twin loaves are taken from it. (Kelayim 1:6)
  6. Holiness consists of doing God's command and can be ascribed neither to the subject who performs it nor to the objects that are the focus of its performance. The latter in and of them selves - like everything else in the world-are indifferent from a religious point of view. To raise them to the level of holiness is to make them divine, and that is as idolatrous as worship of the golden calf, itself. Nor does the calf necessarily have to be of gold: It can be of stone; it can be a place, a country, or a people, or even an idea or a particular personality. (Yeshayahu Leibowitz in Contemporary Religious Thought)

Sparks for Reflection/Discussion

Professor Tigay explores the legal significance of the smashing of the tablets. The other commentators cited above explain that the smashed tablets not only symbolize a broken covenant. The smashed tablets teach an important lesson; namely, a misapprehension of holiness can be a form of idolatry. Holiness is only an attribute of God, according to these sources. The Land of Israel, for example, as stated in Mishna Kelayim, is not intrinsically holy. It is sanctified by virtue of the omer and first fruits that are taken from it. "To see holiness as the essence of some object existing in the world of nature or of history is to raise that thing to the level of the divine-and that is idolatry," writes Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Where do we see examples of this type of idolatry in today's Jewish world?

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