Questions and Suggested Answers
Based on the writings of Nehama Leibowitz
I. "...Tablets that were written on both sides; on the one side and on the other they were written. And the Tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the Tablets" (32-15,16). Our commentators have been puzzled by the introduction of the foregoing description at this juncture. Surely it would have been more appropriate at the end of chapter 31? Why is it placed here?
The above verses are placed in this context in order that they be juxtaposed with the description of Moshe witnessing the orgy around the golden calf. At this climactic moment, the text is not only focusing on Moshe's anguish, shock and outrage. It is simultaneously pointing out that when Moshe approached the people, they saw the writing- the work of God- on the tablets. In smashing the tablets, Moshe demonstrated that the covenant between the people and God had been shattered. In essence, what was broken was the writing itself i.e. the message.
The shattering of the Tablets echoes the incident in Egypt when Moshe smote the Egyptian. In fact, the same verb "vayifen" is used in both events. In Egypt, Moshe had no alternative and in descending the mountain- Moshe viewed the Tablets and beheld the outrage of the people- a drastic act was the only choice left to him.
A scenario in modern times is also somewhat reminiscent. When the United Nations General Assembly passed the infamous "Zionism is racism" resolution, the Israeli delegate Chaim Herzog approached the podium, held up a sheet of paper with the resolution and tore it to shreds. He obviously was tearing up the words - the message- rather than the paper.
Prepared by: Rabbi Mordechai Spiegelman veteran yeshiva educator (USA) now residing in Jerusalem