Parashat Ki Tisa

Rabbi Shelly Donnell & Esther Edelsburg

The portion Ki Tisa contains the well-known story of the Golden Calf which is followed by the account of the second set of tablets of the Law.

Regarding the Golden Calf, after Moses remained on the mountain for forty days and nights the Torah recounts, “When ADONAI finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, He gave him the two tablets of the Pact, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18)  These were the first set of tablets the fate of which is well-known, “When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, shattering them to pieces at the foot of the mountain” (Ex. 32:19).  Moses understood the wild abandon of the people as a “shattering” of the Covenant between the People and God and his response was to shatter the tablets of the Covenant that he received from God.  This concluded the first act of the Covenant.

Things become decidedly more complicated as the account continues, “The next day Moses said to the people, ‘You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to ADONAI; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin’” (Ex. 32:30).  After Moses’ intercession on behalf of the people God responds, “ADONAI said to Moses, ‘Carve out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke’” (Ex. 34:1).  It is clear from this verse that the Holy One of Blessing is the one who is writing on the new tablets carved by Moses.  However, in chapter 34 we also read, “Then ADONAI said to Moses, ‘Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’ Moses was there with ADONAI forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water.  And he wrote on the tablets the words of the Covenant—the Ten Commandments” (Ex. 34:27-28).

Who, exactly, wrote on those two tablets, and what was written on them?  Was it the entire Torah – everything that comprised the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 24:7) that Moses read to the people when the Covenant was established and when the people obligated themselves by declaring, “We will do it and then we will understand it!”?  Or, was it just the Ten Commandments?  And (to complicate things even more), if it was the Ten Commandments, did they follow what was said in Ex. 20:2-14, or the “new” version that we have in this portion in Ex. 34:14-27.

Here are some thoughts from the commentators.  Note how even they differ:

According to the Ramban (Spain, 13th century), “The meaning of And He wrote on the tablets implies God, and not Moses.  This is because previously God said And I will write upon the tablets (above, verse 1).  And thus it is explained in the Mishneh Torah [Deuteronomy], ‘I carved out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hands.  And ADONAI wrote on these tablets what He had written before…” (Deut. 10:3-4).  And, because the scripture states ‘what He had written before…’ we know that they were written by God.  Thus the explanation of ‘And I will write…” is ‘with the finger’ and we know that this implies directly, at the hand of God.”

Then we have Abraham ibn Ezra (Spain, 12th century) who brings us a very different perspective (perhaps).  “And he wrote he wrote on the tablets as on the first… God wrote, just as it states And I will write upon the tablets… (Ex. 34:1), and so it is explained in Deuteronomy.  And the meaning of the term Divrei HaBrit (words of the Covenant) is all of the mitzvot.  And there are those who contend that the first set of tablets were inscribed with what God said, and the second set with what Moses said according to God.  And others contend that one tablet contained God’s words and the other bore the words of Moses.”

Finally, in the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 47:6) it states, “Carve out two stone tablets like the first ones… the Holy One of Blessing said, I wrote the first set of tablets, as it is written, ‘written with the finger of God,’ but the second set you (Moses) shall write.”  And Yeshayahu Leibowitz (Israel, 20th century) comments, “in other words, with the first set of tablets there was no partnership with humanity, whereas with the second set it is stated, ‘carve out’ and ‘write down’ – that is to say, ‘you’ – Moses, a human being.”

  1. If we suggest that there was a joint effort between God and Moses what does this imply regarding the nature of Torah?
  2. If Moses wrote (at least a portion of) the second set of tablets, does this mean that the Torah that he brought to the people was not “perfect” like the “first Torah” that was written “with the finger of God”?  If so, what are the implications for us as liberal Jews and for Judaism itself?
  3. As a result of all this, what happens to the classical metaphor of the Revelation on Mount Sinai (with God giving the Torah to Moses who receives it on behalf of the people)?  Is there another, new metaphor that emerges from this perspective?  What if the metaphor was of Moses presenting the (second) Torah to God and God accepting it from him?
  4. There are those who see in the story a relationship between the first set of tablets as the work of God corresponding to Written Law (scripture) and the second set of tablets as the work of human beings corresponding to the Oral Law (rabbinic tradition).  What do you think?


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