This week’s Torah portion is actually two, vayakhel and pikudei. I am going to focus this week on the first. We are all familiar with the story of the stone tablets that Moses smashed when he realized that the people were involved in the sin of the golden calf. What is interesting is that the rabbis tell us that God wrote on both sets of tablets but that Moses carved out the second set of tablets.
If we look at this from a Jewish point of view there is an interesting transformation that happens, a change of status that occurs between the first set and the second set. The sages tell us that when God gave the Torah at Mount Sinai everyone that was present was transformed spiritually back to the state of Adam and Eve before the sin of the tree of good and evil. Everything that those present had done up to that point was wiped away and they had a clean slate; they were walking through the world as righteous people.
There is, of course, another way to walk through the world and that is as a penitent; someone who has done wrong and has a repentant spirit. The difference between the way a righteous person and a penitent person walks through the world is this – the righteous person has no obstacle, no impediment to doing the will of God. The sages tell us that there are advantages and disadvantages to both of these states of spiritual being.
The righteous and the penitent. Of course it is easier not to have any impediments, to have a clear path to just do as God wants us to do without delay, compromise or temptation. But it is only when we face the world in the second state, after the smashing of the first tablets, as penitents, that we understand the inner struggle. We begin to understand what it is to delve, as the rabbis tell us, into the deep reservoir of our souls to bring out those mitzvot that we need to do. It becomes a bit of a struggle. But compare it to when we exercise, e.g., lifting weights, if there is no struggle then we are not building muscle.
This concept stretches to apply to our spiritual life. When we have to fight this world and our own yitzeir harah, our own evil inclinations and the evils that we face, we are building our spiritual muscles. Then we are living in a way that allows us, penitent people, to sharpen our spirits in a way that the righteous would not be challenged to do.
Looking at this in a Jewish way, God orchestrated the circumstances by which the choice to eat that apple of the tree of good and evil was presented to Adam and Eve. In the same way, God orchestrated the circumstances by which the people had to make a choice about the golden calf. If we really accept that God is in control, it is not that God’s plan, or will, was thwarted, it is all within God’s purview; all within His control. Nothing is a surprise to God.
The other thing about the tablets is that as the tablets were inscribed we are told that God engraved them all the way through, front to back, piercing the stone. What is interesting about this is what do you do with a letter, for instance, like a final mem. That center piece in the middle of the letter would have to be suspended in midair somehow. The sages tell us that is exactly what happened, that God made it possible to engrave all the way through on the tablet, allowing a bit of the letters to float in midair.
What a wonderful object lesson on the power of God’s word for us, the power of the Torah. We are told that after the first set of tablets were smashed, people were no longer able to fully retain the Torah. It is implied that with the first set people were able to call up the words anytime, they were as if imprinted or memorized. But because of the sin of the golden calf and the second tablets we are in the state of penitence and therefore we have to work at remembering the words of Torah.
Isn’t that the point? The work. When we have to work at the Torah, when it is a struggle, then it becomes real for us. The struggle makes the Torah tangible, meaningful, something we can hold on to.
I pray that you and your family are blessed and that as the season of Pesach approaches you are doing some spiritual as well as physical spring cleaning. We are looking forward to the festival of freedom and we have walked with the Torah all this way.
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Shalom and Kol Tuv