Sermon: Second set of tablets Kind of Jews

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 7 March 2015

What did the luchot ha-edut, the tablets of the pact, which Rupert just read about; what did they look like?

It’s probably – well, almost definitely – not a question you’ve ever asked yourself.  Indeed, why would you.  It’s obvious – they were made of stone; two tablets, rounded at the top, with five commandments on one side and five on the other.  The story of the giving of Torah is so familiar, so much part of the formative narrative of not just Judaism, but of Western civilisation, that we all know what they looked like.  Rembrandt, Charlton Heston, the representation in most shuls – including on the outside of this very building – they all agree.

This would have been news to the early rabbis.
For them the tablets were rectangular, with sharp corners, and they had not five and five but all ten of the commandments on both sides – these were shnei luchot habrit – two covenantal records – and as such were more like the diplomatic treaties of the Ancient Near East, in which two copies were made – one for each party.   And, at least according to the rabbinic imagination, the stone they were written on was not the bog standard stone we all think, but was in fact blue Sapphire – a reminder of the divine throne.

Of course, none of this matters massively unless you are an art historian.  What really matters is not what they looked like but that they were made, carved and written, miraculously by God and given by God to Moses to take down as a divine gift to the Israelites.

Except that the last bit of that is also not entirely true – at least, not true of both sets of tablets.  Because while the ones that Moses smashed on finding the Israelites worshipping a golden calf were indeed carved and given to Moses by God, the second set, with which Moses returned in the section of Torah that Rupert just read for us, these were different in one key respect.  Moses had actually carved the stones himself and taken them up the mountain to God with him.
Psol lcha shnei luchot avanim ka-rishonim” God tells Moses – carve yourself two tablets of stone like the first; “v’chatavti al haluchot” and then I will write on the tablets; before adding, to rub it in, “asher shibarta” you know, to replace the ones that you broke.

It’s a not-massively dramatic bit of the story, so it is often overlooked, but the second set were not a simple divine like-for-like replacement.  Rather Moses carved them himself – perhaps even the words upon them – and took them up with him to God.  Midrashically, this detail is used to explain how Moses became a man of means, because he got to keep the sapphire chippings.  But that is another sermon.

Why does this small narrative detail matter?  What possible meaning can it have for us?
Classically, the rabbis understood it like this.  According to a mashal – a parable – in the name of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, we should think of it like a king who was preparing to marry – he paid for the paper for the marriage contract, paid for the scribe, and the wedding dress.  But then, he saw his intended messing about with one of the servants, and sent her away.  When her agent intervened to try to reconcile them, the king insisted that he, the agent, would have to cover the cost this time – pay for the paper and the scribe and then the king would simply sign it.  Similarly, if Moses wanted God to be reconciled with the Israelites, then Moses would have to bring the Tablets himself, and God would simply add the divine signature.

So this was, perhaps, just a matter of divine irritation, slightly churlish even – “asher shibarta” you know, to replace the ones that you broke, Moses.

But there is another, much more profound meaning to this apparently minor plot line.   The first set of tablets, the first revelation, the one that was broken in just a moment, it were was never sustainable because it was all one way – God gave them to Moses – the human role was merely to accept, to obey – something for which we are not exactly temperamentally suited.  But the second set presented a different model – one in which revelation was a shared endeavour – in which human beings are fundamentally involved, and God – ki v’yachol – if one can say such a thing – appends the divine signature.

This is not quite as radical as it sounds.  The nineteenth century Orthodox rabbi, Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, who was the head of the famous Volozhin yeshiva, in what is now Belarus, wrote this:
“The reason God ordered Moses to carve the second tablets was not because they were not worthy of a Divine act but to teach that the ever-renewing power of halachah given in the second tablets involves the active participation of the labour of human beings with Divine aid, just as the second tablets were carved by Moses and the writing was by God.”

In other words, human beings have to be active partners in creating religious life and law.  Revelation is not a one-way act but involves our input.

This kind of thinking was crucial to the early rabbis and it was what allowed them to take the words of Torah and to create out of them, well, Judaism.  It allowed them to evolve mitzvah – commandment – into halachah – law – that reflected their values and their political reality.

It allowed, for example, the rabbis to overturn the very clear biblical injunctions on capital punishment, and to remove it from their own sphere.

And they did something very similar to the difficult parts of this morning’s portion.
It is an extraordinary thing that while the Torah is so clear, so clear, in its hostility to the presence of pagan worship in the Land of Israel, there is not a single normative repetition in the Mishnah of these commands.  As the very wonderful scholar, Moshe Halbertal has written, with some understatement: “The avoidance of such a command is interesting since the starting point of biblical law is that co-existence is not allowed, and that Israel ought to wage a total war against the pagans in the land of Israel”.  Instead, as he goes on to demonstrate, the rabbis created a legal structure in which co-existence with the other in the land of Israel was completely possible.  It is only because of this radical overturning of Torah that we do not see Jews involved in scenes like the scandalous destruction of the ancient city of Nimrud by IS this week, because it represents ‘false idols’.

The rabbis, not only here, were radical beyond belief in responding to the social realities, and new values of their time.  They were second set of tablets kind of Jews.

And ultimately, we have to decide whether we are too.

Are we first tablets Jews – receivers of divine Torah – or, now a divine halachah – who ultimately live a religious life of obedience to that which we have been given by generations that came before us.  Without wishing to be too polemical, is the language of our Judaism masorah – transmission of tradition, handing over and delivering, being given – is our job to preserve and obey that which came before even when it jars?

Or are we second tablet Jews – Jews with the power of progress, of hiddush – creativity, innovation, if necessary subversion.  The early rabbis were exemplars of this kind of thinking. If something was not right they named it as such, they turned aspects of Judaism utterly on its head. Respectful, knowledgeable, but active partners in revelation.

This is why, to me, Rupert’s dvar torah was so good – because it was second set of tablets religious thinking, not merely treating Torah as an inheritance but as something to engage with.  And it is only that kind of thinking that will allow Judaism to move and to grow, to respond to new realities, and to be reconciled with our values.

What did the luchot ha-edut, the tablets of the pact, what did they look like?
Rounded or pointy, five and five or ten and ten, stone or sapphire.  Really, who cares?  But what do they represent: It depends which ones you are talking about.  The first set are a one-way religious life.  The second set –what they represent is Judaism with human involvement – dialogue, conversation, radicalism, change.  Torah as an active endeavour.  One in which we are utterly engaged – shaping the future of our religious life and the world we live in.  Like Moses, carvers of our own tablets.