SALT - Friday, 17 Adar 5780 - March 13, 2020


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  • Rav David Silverberg
            We read in Parashat Ki-Tisa of Moshe’s angry reaction when he came down from Mount Sinai and witnessed the scene of Benei Yisrael worshipping the golden calf: “Moshe was incensed, and he threw from his hands the tablets, shattering them at the bottom of the mountain” (32:19).  The Gemara (Shabbat 87a), as Rashi cites, explained that Moshe destroyed the tablets upon which God had engraved the commandments because he concluded that after worshipping a graven image, they were not worthy of receiving the Almighty’s Torah.
            Rav Yisrael of Chortkov (in Neizer Yisrael) creatively saw this act as Moshe’s effort to prepare himself to plead to God on the nation’s behalf in the wake of this grievous sin.  Moshe knew that in order to effectively help the people and pray for them, he needed to be able to identify with them, to feel a part of the nation, and to understand and empathize with them.  This was very extremely difficult for Moshe to do after he spent forty days living atop Mount Sinai like an angel, receiving the Torah from God, while Benei Yisrael rapidly regressed to the point where they worshipped a foreign deity.  How, he wondered, would he be able to properly relate to the people, understand them, and identify with them, given the vast difference between them?  The Rebbe of Chortkov explains that for this reason Moshe got angry and shattered the luchot – because the Gemara (Shabbat 105b) teaches that “one who breaks utensils in his fury” is considered as though he worshipped idols.  After breaking the tablets out of anger, Moshe was then not all that distant from Benei Yisrael, who had just worshipped a graven image…
            This clever chassidic quip is likely intended to instruct us how we can emulate Moshe’s example, and continue feeling love and compassion for people despite their failings and wrongdoing.  The way this is done, the Rebbe of Chortkov here teaches, is by reflecting on our own imperfections which resemble, to one extent or another, other people’s imperfections.  When we remember that we are able and expected to respect ourselves and feel generally good about ourselves despite our failings, we will be able to respect and others and judge them positively despite their failings.  The Rebbe of Chortkov depicts Moshe as undergoing a process of identification with the people after the sin of the golden calf by acknowledging his own human frailties, such as anger, which, in a sense, resembles idolatry.  (This resemblance is commonly understood to mean that anger and frustration bespeak a refusal to accept the undesirable circumstances, which amounts to a denial or rejection of Providence which orchestrated those circumstances.)  Similarly, when we realize that we are all far from perfect, we can connect with and relate