Skip to content

Parashat Ki Tisa 5773 — 02/27/2013

Parashat Ki Tisa 5773 — 02/27/2013

Tablet Computing

The tablets were stone, written by the finger of Gd. (31:18)

Hashem told Moshe, “Go! Get down, for the people you brought up from the land of Egypt have become corrupt!” (32:7)

Hashem said to Moshe, “Hew out two tablets of stone like the original ones, and Iwill write on the tablets the words that were on the original tablets that you smashed.” (34:1)

And when Moshe came down from Mt. Sinai … Moshe didn’t realize that the skin of his face was radiant… and Aharon and all the people of Israel … were afraid to approach him. (34:29-30)

For the last several parshiot we have been looking at different models of the structure and dynamics of the relationship between the infinite and the finite, between Gd, the Creator, and the Creation.  We have described the relationship as a “sandwich,” with infinity bracketing the finite as its source and its goal.  We also have considered a model where the finite acts as a curtain or as clothing for the infinite, at once concealing and revealing it.  For our parashah I’d like to take a different angle.  For those of you who are getting tired of these metaphors, do not despair – in two weeks we’ll be on to Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) and we’ll try something new <g>.

Inherent in our sandwich model is actually a circular model.  This is simply because the infinity on one side and the infinity on the other side are not distinct from one another – there is really just one infinity, as we say in the Sh’ma: Hashem our Gd, Hashem is One.  Whatever emanates from Hashem eventually returns to Hashem.  This is a great truth that is echoed in many religions (probably all in one way or another).  We say “the body returns to the dust whence it came, and the soul returns to Gd Who gave it.”  (Kohelet 12:7)  The Bhagavad-Gita says, “Beings are unmanifest [i.e. infinite, pure Being] in the beginning, manifest [i.e. finite] in the middle, and unmanifest again at the end…”

This circular model also parallels the growth of individual awareness.  As we grow and mature, our awareness expands.  The awareness of infants is focused on the body, making sure its needs are met, and distinguishing itself as an entity apart from its surroundings.  As we grow, our awareness begins to include more and more of the environment, human and otherwise.  Simultaneously we become more and more self-aware.  I believe that the purpose of living life in accord with our tradition is to take this growth to its logical conclusion – infinite expansion of outer awareness and infinite expansion of inner awareness.  That means, we evaluate our own self as a manifestation of the infinite, and we evaluate everything around us as a manifestation of the same infinity that we have identified ourselves with.  With this subjective growth, the objective creation also comes full circle – part of objective creation has become aware of the creation in its true, infinite value.  Through human consciousness it is as if objectivity has gained a subjective side as well.

In our Parashah I believe Torah introduces a new aspect to this circular progression.  In the Revelation at Mt. Sinai we have the Jewish people at what appears to be the peak of human development.  They heard Gd speaking to them directly, and they were given the Torah, the blueprint of creation.  Moshe Rabbeinu as well, goes up the mountain – literally and figuratively; he spends 40 days on Mt Sinai, neither eating nor drinking, but being sustained purely spiritually, from his closeness to Gd.  His individual existence is all but subsumed in Gd’s infinite essence.  Our Sages express this by saying that the entire people reached the level of Adam prior to his eating from the Tree of Knowledge.  At that time of course, Adam had just been created and animated by Gd.  He was fully formed and apparently fully awake and aware.  He was, perhaps, a pure soul.  It was only after the sin, when he was ejected from the Garden of Eden, that Gd needed to make for him “garments of skin.”  Perhaps this means that he actually didn’t need a gross, physical body to exist prior to the sin.  In any event, Israel had reached this level.

Just as Adam sinned, however, so did Israel in the incident of the golden calf.  As Israel’s collective consciousness descended, so did Moshe Rabbeinu’s support for his exalted state: Gd told him, “Get down – I raised you to greatness only for Israel’s sake.  Now that they have fallen, what do I need you for!”  Moshe does in fact go down and smashes the first set of tablets.  This appears to shock the nation into sincere repentance.  Then a funny thing happens when Moshe goes up to Mt. Sinai again – he gets even closer to Gd than he was before.  Only now does Gd agree to “cause all My goodness to pass before you.”  Only now does Gd teach the 13 attributes (although one might argue that prior to the golden calf it was unnecessary for Israel to have this knowledge).  Only now does Moshe Rabbeinu’s face shine with supernal light!  We have a cycle here of closeness/estrangement due to sin/repentance (return), but the return is not to the same level – it is to a higher level.  Rather than a circle, we have a helix, where each complete turn takes us to higher and higher levels.

Our Rabbis have given various explanations of the difference(s) between the first and second sets of tablets.  One that I find most fascinating is this.  The first set of tablets contained both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.  Of course, the first set of tablets were also completely Gd-given; Moshe is only told to hew out the second set of tablet by himself.  The second set of tablets contained only the Written Torah.  What happened to the Oral Torah?  Well, now it’s Oral – it is no longer set in stone, and it cannot be read.  The Oral Torah must be passed from teacher to student (this is still true, by the way,  even though the Mishnah was redacted and written down about 1800 years ago, and the Gemara some 300 years later), from one heart and mind to the next.  Furthermore, since it’s not set in stone, it is capable of development and of a certain amount of adaptation.  And who does this development?  The community of Israel, human beings, working to apply the principles given on Mt. Sinai to the ever-changing conditions we face.

The first tablets were Gd’s gift to us; we had no input other than agreeing to accept them.  The second tablets, in a way, are our gift to Gd – they are a symbol of the fact that human beings have become partners with Gd in bringing creation to fulfillment.  Israel has moved to a higher level than before the golden calf – we have moved from being passive recipients of Gd’s goodness to being active partners with Gd in the work of creation.  Had there been no sin presumably Moshe Rabbeinu would not have broken the first tablets, and we would have remained stuck on the earlier, albeit very high, spiritual level.  The sin is what catalyzed the return, but the return was to a higher level of closeness to Gd.  Our Sages express this phenomenon in the well-known phrase: “Where the penitent (ba’al t’shuvah) stands, the perfect saint (tzaddik gamur) cannot stand.”

In mathematics a helix has no end; it keeps cycling and advancing to infinity.  In our spiritual life, I’m not so sure.  Our Tradition tells us that we can experience infinity to a certain extent.  We can see Gd’s back, but “no person can see My face and live.”  Just as in mathematics there are an infinite number of levels of infinity, perhaps we too can experience many different levels of infinity.  It must be in our DNA.