Torah from around the world #33

Chol HaMo’ed Sukkot 5771 (Exodus 33:12-34:26)

by Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander

During Sukkot, I sometimes find myself meandering down the aisles of my local hardware store in search of glue, screws, and hinges to repair my disintegrating sukkah that I first built years ago.  After all, no sukkah is meant to last forever.  But what would I do if I suddenly found the very foundation of my moral life lying shattered to pieces on my patio?  Wouldn’t the entire structure of my values cave in beyond repair?

This is the predicament in which Moses found himself.  As he descended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he was stunned to see his people dancing around the Golden Calf.  In a fit of temper he smashed the two tablets and ground the fragments into powder.  According to a Midrash, as Moses raised the tablets ready to hurl them, the holy letters flew from the stone and returned to safety in heaven.  The words that were to form the foundation of Jewish life detached themselves from dead stone and left our people hovering in a spiritual abyss between heaven and earth.

Then, in our Torah portion for Chol HaMo’ed Sukkot, God instructs Moses: “Carve by yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first set, which you shattered” (Exodus 34:1).  Moses does so, and receives the revelation of thirteen divine attributes as a reward.  The story of the Israelites then continues to unfold despite this unfortunate setback.

However, according to the Zohar, the classical medieval text of Jewish mysticism, the two sets of tablets were not the same.


The first pair was inscribed by God, whereas Moses carved the second pair “by himself.”  The first tablets, explains the Zohar, contained two elements:

– the Written Torah: the pure, eternal standard of truth written by the finger of God

– the Oral Torah, in which this standard engages in dialogue with human thought and behaviour.

But when these tablets were smashed and the letters flew heavenward, the Written Torah remained with God.  Thus, says the Zohar, the second set of tablets – the ones recorded in the Torah that we read – contained the Oral Torah alone.  As a result, the people were left with a fragmented foundation, an incomplete life in need of repair.  It was as if they had been expelled a second time from Eden.

We in the 21st century are the inheritors of this broken Torah in a fragmented world.  Religious fanaticism around the globe threatens to seize control over our land and our minds.  Personal savings amassed over years of toil suddenly dissolve and grind our retirement dreams into dust.  And in Israel, each step up the rocky slope toward peace seems to open an even wider chasm between Jew and Arab.  And no hardware store stocks the binding agent that will fix all these.

As depressing as this may seem, our Jewish tradition teaches that it may be for the best that the original tablets were shattered.  “Rabbi Alexandri says: If an everyday craftsperson fashions broken vessels, this would be a disgrace.  But the Holy Blessed One chooses to work with broken vessels, as Scripture states, ‘Adonai is near to those of broken heart’ (Ps. 147).”


We are God’s broken vessels.  No sukkah is meant to last forever, but dwelling within one can remind us that fragile vessels can do some very important work.  And as we gaze through the schach into the night sky, perhaps we can catch a glimmer of those holy letters beckoning us toward a repaired world.

[1] Midrash HaNe’alam to Ruth,

Zohar Chadash

83b-d.  For further commentary, see Lawrence Englander,

The Mystical Study of Ruth

(Scholars Press 1993), p. 89f with notes.

[2] Lev. Rabbah 7:2

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