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Friday, February 1, 2013

Diving into the Yerushalmi again to find a prescient warning

This posting concerns the same section of Gemara from the Yerushalmi, masechet Ta'anit, concerning 5 terrible things that happened on the 17th of Tammuz. Following the lesson on not judging on the basis of guesswork, the discussion veers in another direction: just how it happened, and at whose instigation, the tablets were shattered.  Four opinions are offered:

  • R. Yishmael tells us: Moses broke the tablets at the behest of God. R. Yishmael derives his view from Deuteronomy 10:2 in which God says, “I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets that you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.”
  • R. Shmuel bar Nachman in the name of R. Yonatan tells us: Moses holds one end and God holds the other. Upon seeing the Golden Calf, God attempts to wrest the tablets away from Moses, but his grasp is so firm that God cannot, which is why the very last verse of Torah is …for all the great might power (ha-yad ha-chazakah, lit. “the strong hand) and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel (Deuteronomy 34:12) — this is God’s admission of Moses’ superior strength in this instance.
  • R. Yochanan in the name of R. Yose bar Abaye tells us that the tablets themselves try to fly away, but again Moses holds them fast. He calls on Deuteronomy 9:17 to support his claim because it there Moses says, “So I took hold of the two tablets…” suggesting that Moses has to grasp them in order to prevent them from flying off.
  • R. Ezra in the name of R. Yehudah b. R. Shimon explains that the stone tablets are inherently exceptionally heavy. The writing — God’s words — holds the tablets aloft, lightening the load, as it were. The writing flies off the tablets, however, and they became so heavy that Moses can no longer hold them up. They fall and shatter.

The opinions expressed share a common idea: God, or the tablets themselves, or the writing on them, wish to disassociate Torah from Israel, presumably because, having worshiped the Golden Calf, Israel is unworthy to receive God’s words. I find this line of thinking peculiar: We have Torah not because we are righteous and deserving, but because we need Torah to become better people. At the moment they are encircling the Golden Calf with song and praise, Israel desperately needs the Torah.

In each case, it is not Moses’ who wishes to shatter the tablets. In fact, Moses attempts to hold fast to the Torah (etz chaim hi l’machazim ba / “it is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it). In the eyes of the Gemara, Moses is the true prophet and shepherd, even more patient and long-suffering than Torah makes him out to be. What is more, he extends the teaching about reserving judgment to another level: reserve punishment. Instead, offer help to change. Ideally, do we give up on someone who fails to follow the right path in life, or do we redouble our efforts to redirect them?

The writing fleeing from the stone tablets is a most curious image, evoking many thoughts. Moses is left with blank stone tablets. Alone, they lack sanctity and value. They are merely stone tablets. How easy it would be to mistake the tablets for Torah. In a similar vein, how often do people mistake scrupulous observance of the minutiae of ritual for the heart and soul of Torah, a value system and way of life that inculcates a sense of compassion and justice?

Just yesterday I heard this story from a woman who has been babysitting for the children of a family that considers itself highly observant. The children are undisciplined and unregulated, and treat her rudely. Yesterday, they behaved toward her with egregious disrespect again and again in their mother’s presence, yet the mother did not make a move to correct them. The woman who recounted the story said: “It makes me very sad to see a family that is so ‘religious’ on the outside but yet can't be bothered to teach there kids the fundamental value of treating others with respect. I am still stunned that a parent can witness behavior like that in their children without being overcome with embarrassment. She never once indicated to them that their behavior was inappropriate or that I was a human being with feelings just like them. But I'm sure if one of those kids flipped on a light switch on shabbos or ate dairy too soon after a meat meal, she would immediately be reprimanded. It just baffles me!” This family, exemplifies the danger of mistaking the tablets for the writing. Their practice is calcified and lifeless. They worship the stones, not realizing that the writing has flown free of them.

This is a danger in a tradition such as ours that places a premium on delineated detailed behaviors; we can lose sight of the meaning and purpose of our practice and the moral values that lie behind it. Rabbi Avi Weiss, whose Orthodox credentials are unquestioned (though not everyone in the Orthodox world is pleased with him) will tell you that the mission of Judaism is to “spread a system of ethical monotheism, of God ethics to the world.” This is our purpose. The mitzvot are vessels for expressing love for God by living ethical values of Judaism. When we place the vessels above the content, the means above the mission, the ritual above the purpose, we worship the blank stone and the writing flies free — away from us. And that is idolatry.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Marina Krakovsky,Mixed Impressions: How We Judge Others on Multiple Levels,” Scientific American. January 27, 2010.

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