Despite human anger, we can draw closer to God

Have you ever been so angry that all you want to do is smash something? If so, you have something in common with Moses. Specifically, in the parashah of Ki Tissa, Moses showed how destructive he could be, after witnessing his people dancing and singing around the golden calf.
Impatience on the part of the people, combined with Moses’ volatile temper following his return from the summit of Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments in hand, is a tragic combination, resulting in broken tablets and thousands of dead sinners.
It doesn’t seem to make sense that Moses isn’t allowed entry into the promised land after he strikes a rock instead of talking to it, yet smashing the tablets with the literal words of God written upon them doesn’t even merit a reprimand. After all, there is a price to pay if we drop a Torah scroll during services. We must take responsibility if we contribute, even inadvertently, to its literal downfall. Some traditional rulings claim that we must fast for 40 days to atone for it.
We also endure psychological trauma if we witness a Torah scroll falling to the floor. This happened at Beth Shalom not too long ago. Our Torah scroll was perched, precariously as it turned out, in the wooden holder. All of the sudden, the scroll tipped. A congregant bolted for it, but wasn’t quite quick enough. A collective cry arose from the congregation, and I thought one of the gabbaim was going to have a heart attack. It was a truly traumatic moment, and our response was to establish a “Holy Rollers” fund to make sure our Torah scrolls would be maintained properly.
Still, it doesn’t seem fair that, when a Torah is accidentally dropped because of unintended human error, we must engage in teshuvah, repentance, while Moses, in a bout of anger, shatters the stones on purpose and gets away scot-free! How can that be justifiable?
Leave it to the rabbis to answer that question. Referencing Exodus Rabbah 41:1 (, Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson explains the action was Moses’ attempt to deflect some blame onto himself: “Upon breaking the tablets, he told God, ‘Now I am a sinner just like them. If You decide to eradicate them, destroy me as well.’” Another theory explains that the weight of the tablets was diminished by the sacred letters inscribed on them. But as soon as Moses came down the mountain and saw the celebration around the golden calf, the letters flew into the air, making the now-ordinary stones too heavy for Moses to carry, and they fell to the ground.
It seems to me that some of these explanations, although creative, are a bit of a stretch. Some of them make the case that Moses had a strategy for doing what he did, such as to risk sacrificing the tablets (and his own life) to save his people. But these explanations gloss over the elephant in the room, or shall I say, the camel in the desert: Moses’ temper. The people tried his patience on a number of occasions, but this was the straw that broke that camel’s back. And, as the text keeps reiterating, he lost it.
A form of the verb charah, to become hot, angry, to burn with anger (charon in the noun form), is found five times within the same chapter, and describes the reactions of both God and Moses upon discovering what the Israelites were up to in Moses’ absence. This verb is often combined with the noun af meaning “nose, nostril,” or, metaphorically “anger.” Exodus 32:19 indicates, “As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged (vayichar af Moshe); and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.”
The text makes it clear that his anger burst forth spontaneously. There didn’t seem to be any strategizing going on, no game plan; he simply witnessed a horrific sight and lost his temper. Perhaps that was because God, being all-knowing, knew how Moses would react, and didn’t stop him.
Perhaps after seeing His people crack so quickly under the fear of abandonment, God realized that they needed to forge a closer, more intimate relationship — an actual partnership — with Him. And for that to happen, the first set of tablets wasn’t going to work.
Exodus 31:18 declared, “When (God) finished speaking with (Moses) on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.” One chapter later stated that: “The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets.” However, in 34:27, when Moses returns for the second set of Commandments, God said: “Write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel.” Moses did so, meaning there is a human element involved. While God dictated, Moses was the scribe.
Through this action, God seems to acknowledge that His creations need to be involved in the process; this covenant will only work if it is a true partnership.
The “Eitz Chaim” Chumash states, “This second set was written with a greater knowledge of human weakness, at the hand of an imperfect human being, rather than by a perfect deity.” God not only gave them the gift of Torah; He also gave them pride of ownership.
We are told both the broken and whole tablets were housed in the ark, not just as a reminder of sins, but as a reminder that wholeness, strength and goodness, can grow out of that brokenness. We need to embrace the whole package: We are the sum total of our mistakes as well as our successes. No matter how broken we might feel, we can feel whole again, even if we are left with scars.
The second set of tablets gives us the opportunity to engage in an ongoing conversation with God, and with our ancestors, through the ages, who struggled to make sense out of God’s sacred text.
Though Moses’ anger did get the best of him, perhaps when he broke that first set of tablets, he brought us closer to God. And God, in turn, possibly saw the opportunity of that outcome, a chance to create an everlasting partnership with His people.
Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington, and a chaplain for Vitas Healthcare.

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