The Divinity in Our Broken Tablets

I picture Moses walking on mount Sinai as a man both ecstatically inspired and completely at the end of his rope.  It took days to get up to the top of the mountain and who knows how much water and food he had.  Sandals wearing thin, he trudges on, sure that there will be something worth all of this at the top.  He follows that voice that leads him further and further up the mountain slope, climbing grey rocks and tolerating the small but constant scratches on his arms from every overgrown bush along the way.  Emerging from the green-brown brush he finally arrives at the summit.

What happened at the top is the source of endless discussion.  There are heaps of midrashim, stories dreamed up by our rabbis, about the specifics of that pivotal moment.  We read of fire on fire, the divine hand of God and the magical breath of inspiration.  Some people say that at the top of Mount Sinai every inch of history was told to our prophet Moses.  Others say that it was every word of our tradition.  There are commentators that insist that only the ten commandments were given, and still others argue that it was a single word, a letter, a sound / And then Moses collects all of this and brings it back down the mountain.  He carries tablets down the mountain containing the most important message he or anyone else will ever deliver to our people and when he arrives at the bottom he…well we all know what happened: the Israelites are praying to a golden calf, his brother Aaron pleads ignorant but for certain the community has strayed from their path and Moses in a fury shatters the tablets.  He throws the stone onto the ground, dividing the lines, dashes and dots that made up the word of God, now a tumble of broken rock, a rubble of words, a pile of letters.

It takes some convincing, but eventually God gets Moses to head back up the mountain for another round.  The same journey, the same trek to the top.  “So Moses carved two tablets of stone, like the first, and early in the morning he went up on Mount Sinai, as Adonai had commanded him, taking the two stone tablets with him. Adonai came down in a cloud; God stood with him there, and proclaimed the name Yud Hey Vav Hey.”[1]  This is our Torah, our people’s scripture.  The closest explanation in the text of what happened on that mountain top.

This is a powerful story of the origin of our seminal text, our Torah, the core teachings that inspire our community to act, and allow us to vision together into the future.  Like any people, we have a way of explaining our source, the way that we came to be.  We were slaves in Egypt, we were freed from bondage, and experienced a revelation that still lights our path today.  But what really happened?  It’s a beautiful story, but is it true?  Did Moses really climb those legendary steps?  Did God actually present those words?  Are the words we read today the words that Moses carried under his tunic, sheltering it from harsh winds and unexpected rain?

We can’t really know this for certain one way or the other.  Historically, our archeology doesn’t reach back that far.  We can get to King Solomon, who built the first Temple, and ruled over Jerusalem.  A figure in our Bible for sure, but not in the core, not in the Torah.  He occupies the later pages that chronicle the history of our people long after the time of Moses.  But before Solomon our history books trail off onto blank pages, like someone was writing history backwards and fell asleep at that point, their pen idly dripping ink onto the carpet.  Try as we might, there is nothing that gives us any scientific certainty as to the validity or the falsehood of these texts.

So what do we do with them?  Robert Alter, a great Jewish Bible scholar notes that regardless of the divinity of the text there is genius in the Torah text.  For Alter, even when we don’t know the origins of the text, the majesty of its prose, the poetry in its language and inspiring rhetoric leaves the reader in awe.  Whatever the source, there is a spiritual voice in the text, opening the soul to the deeper things in our world.  The stories themselves are similarly timeless.  There is no question that today we still struggle with the same themes that were carved out millennia ago.  We still struggle with family issues, with poverty, the rights of women and with knowing ourselves.  The same brilliance rests among the letters.

Even more points to holiness in the text, not in its origin, but in its history.  I remember pouring over the texts from a medieval commentator one day and coming across a favorite line from the story of the binding of Isaac.  The scholar, to make his point mentioned in passing the words: “Hineini b’ni,” I am here my child.  I love these words, Abraham shows such presence in the moment, knowing that his son must be struggling with their journey and Abraham’s words betray to the reader some of the apprehension he must have felt in the moment of their bizarre activity.  For a split second I was puzzled that the scholar quoted the line: I thought, “wait, how does he know these words?”  Of course, he knows them because he poured over them, the same as I did.  This same text, that I hold so near to my heart, that I read and let tease out the wonderments of my mind, this scholar also loved and grappled with, but he did it a thousand years ago.  We love the same text, and the words draw us near to each other even though a deep valley of years divide us.  And it is the same with all of the many generations that have given their hearts to the same words.  Millions, literally millions, of people have drawn their metal yad over the same challenging and inspiring stories on Shabbat and holidays.  There is certainly a deeper connection in that.

So we return to the question, is this text written by God?  And I wonder, how would we authenticate the divinity of the text anyway?  We have no divining rod that we might hold out over the Torah, sticking like a magnet to the words that are true.  No potion that would cast the falsities to fire.  No criteria for what is a divine word.  The rabbis of the Talmud struggled with this same question.  Their conclusion is fascinating.

The story goes as follows.  There was a dispute over whether a certain oven was kosher.  Rabbi Eliezer said that it was perfectly fit to use to make food, but the rest of the scholars of the academy disagreed.  A brilliant and erudite man he made every argument imaginable.  I picture him standing in front of his many colleagues, one arm raised and gesticulating to the many cases he cited.  The text goes so far as to say that Rabbi Eliezer made every argument possible.  One after the other the assembly denies his arguments.  Incensed, Rabbi Eliezer cries out “if I am right let this carob tree prove it.”  And not a moment later the carob tree launches into the air, roots and all, and lands back down on the ground 200 feet away.  Still the assembly disagrees.  Bewildered, Rabbi Eliezar calls out “if I am right let this river prove it.”  Instantly the waters reverse and flow backwards.  Again, the collection of scholars deny his argument.  Finally, in a rage Rabbi Eliezer yells “if I am right let the walls of this house of learning prove it.”  And as the walls of the yeshiva begin to turn in, like giant hinged and plastered walls on a theater set, Rabbi Joshua leaps to his feet denying Rabbi Eliezar.  Finally a voice from the heavens comes down and says “why do you continue to dispute Rabbi Eliezar?  He is clearly right.”  Still standing, Rabbi Joshua utters the words that reverberate down the centuries and through every place of learning: “Lo Bashamayim Hi” the Torah is not in heaven.  Our text, our Torah, is not in the heavens, it is right here in front of us, it is ours.[2]  And so we learn from our rabbis that our Torah is powerful not because of its origin, but because of its place in our lives.

Our text points us to divinity by letting our minds discover holiness on their own, the Torah is not in heaven, it’s right here, and regardless of where it came from, it leads forward.  Our Torah is our way of reaching through the heavens and finding God in our own mouths, the words of our text are alive because we are alive.  Sweet Torah pouring from our mouths not because of the text has a divine origin, but simply because we do.  May we all find holiness in the words of our mouths and may our sacred texts be alive in each one of us.