By Daniel Oppenheimer
Most religions have a revelation at their heart – after all, a God that never communicates with us is not a particularly useful idea. But the Jewish story of revelation is unique and it has surely left its mark on our conception of God and our relationship to that God. Like the sacred texts of other religions, ours tells a suitably solemn and awesome revelation story: how in fire and thunder, God gave commandments to our greatest prophet, in Divine handwriting (e.g., “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God [michtav Elohim]”; Ex. 32:16). But unlike those of other religions, it goes on to tell a much less edifying story: how the prophet smashed the Divine writing in a fit of anger, in response to which God dictated the words again, for the prophet to do the writing this time (“The Lord said to Moses: ‘Inscribe these words for yourself [k’tav l’cha et had’varim ha-eleh]’”; Ex. 34:27).
The symbolism of the original story – that God’s commandments were smashed and then rewritten by a human hand but with God’s blessing – is deeply subversive and, as such, extremely fruitful. I once heard a discussion between a rabbi and an imam, both involved in interfaith work, about what each envied about the other’s religion. The imam spoke of his envy for the Jewish willingness to challenge and argue with God. “For us,” he said, “that would just be inconceivable”. We usually say that our willingness to argue with God comes from the story of Abraham arguing on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom. But this text here is surely equally important. The Rabbinic Judaism we practice was created by the rabbis, in effect, smashing up and rewriting the Torah through the medium of commentary, midrash and Mishnah, all the while proclaiming their absolute loyalty to that Torah and to the God that gave it. They surely drew support from this story.
Of course the story is not about simple destruction and replacement by something better. The Torah is still our foundational text, and the broken tablets were also kept in the Ark. Rather, the message is best captured by several midrashim on this text, which liken the two sets of tablets to a variety of elevated and celebrated pairings – bride and groom, heaven and earth, Written and Oral Torah. In other words, the old broken tablets and the new unbroken tablets are both absolutely necessary parts of a greater whole. It’s a deep and poetic idea, with many possible meanings and applications. Certainly as we mature in life, we learn that brokenness is not always bad or painful, that it can have a power and a significance. In this case, the midrashim seem to be saying that the natural world (heaven and earth), the family (bride and groom) and truth and meaning (the two Torahs) all must rest on a combination of the broken with the whole. In a world in which increasingly people seem to fear and run away from broken old things in pursuit of the new, the shiny and the perfect, this is an important corrective.