By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Vezot Habracha
We have just entered the most joyous of all Jewish festivals — Sukkot — the final stage of the spiritual triathlon that opens with Rosh Hashanah and concludes with completing the yearly cycle of Torah portions. The average person, who’s had some exposure to Torah study, can easily quote the first words of the entire Torah from memory — “In the beginning, G-d created.” The concluding words, however, are more elusive. They are also more mysterious.
After the final portion opens with Moses’ comprehensive blessing to Israel, the Five Books close with the words: “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses…in all the mighty hand, and in all the great awe, which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:10). The first two of these phrases are explained to refer to pivotal events, namely his directly receiving the Torah and the splitting of the sea, but the very last one — “performed in the sight of all Israel” — is the most cryptic. The literal interpretation of the text, Rashi, based on precise Hebrew diction, explains that the phrase refers to the time “when his heart inspired him to shatter the tablets [the Ten Commandments] before their eyes.”
Upon descending the mountain and witnessing the golden calf, he smashed the tablets to demonstrate the gravity of their sin. While that was a memorable moment, this placement is surprising — shouldn’t the Torah end on a positive note? After all, as it is a moral guide for the people of Israel throughout all generations, one would expect the final verse to convey a meaningful and uplifting message.
Some may try to reason that as these last words flow from the greatness and uniqueness of Moses’ level of prophecy, so the Torah ends with a point of congratulations to Moses. He did something seemingly destructive, but to which G-d agreed as the Talmud elucidates the words “[the first tablets] which you shattered” (Exodus 34:1) — that [God said to Moses:] “Well done for shattering them!” But if so, why should such a dreadful act, one that further stresses the shame of the Jewish people, be counted as one of Moses’ virtues? Whatever way one looks at it, it seems strange that the final words of the entire Torah, whose purpose is to be addressed to Israel, should concern the shattering of the tablets. Out of all images, all the memories to leave off with, why highlight their worst spiritual fall?
The answer lies not in recalling the event that prompted Moses to smash the tablets but the result of this dramatic scene. After 40 days of pleading on behalf of the Jewish people, Moses was answered with an instruction: “Hew two tablets of stone like the first which you broke.” This marked a new stage in our relationship with G-d. The first tablets signify the initial revelation to Israel at Mount Sinai. They were a gift, a sign of endearment, a declaration of a bond that, while powerful, had never been called into question. This stage is similar to the early stages of a relationship where everything is fresh and untainted, yet immature and untested.
At the time of the second tablets, Israel had made a grave mistake in judgment. They had tasted the bitterness of spiritual defeat, experienced the feeling of estrangement and worked to restore the connection. The relationship had been threatened, the external bond broken, then repaired. Thus, while less glorified, the second tablets are our testimony to a deeper bond, one that can endure the worst of times and nevertheless emerge intact — even stronger than before the sin.
The Talmud comments that the making of the golden calf paved the way for the concept of teshuvah and rebuilding. And the breaking of the first tablets was not simply an expression of displeasure, but an attempt to awaken in Israel a desire to return to G-d. This act ultimately paved the way for their replacement, the second tablets, which were greater than the first. So, concluding with this stark image is not a reminder of our lowest moment, but rather a message that the connection is never lost.
As it relates to the calendar cycle, the creation of the second tablets gave rise to the first Yom Kippur and the extraordinary power of that day. Without this event, the Torah’s perspective on repair would look different. The emotion of regret, in its purest form, is the burning desire to take back an act. But as the natural laws of time would have it, one cannot undo the past. And so, logic might dictate that in such a case one is stuck, forced to accept the enduring consequences. Yet the innovation and promise of this day is the chance, not simply to erase the act, or to be forgiven and wipe the slate clean, but to reach an even higher level.
Though we are aware of this potent force within the day, Yom Kippur is not an outwardly happy occasion. We must grind — “afflict ourselves” through fasting and prayer — to trigger that result. But this inner joy and fulfillment in being able to start fresh and reach a higher spiritual level is the deeper reason for celebration during Sukkot. And on the final day, we conclude the Five Books of Moses with an image that hints at the entire process of reconnection — a sign that “all’s well that ends well.” It is perhaps the most important message in the entire Torah, and in life, that regardless of how low one may fall there is always an opportunity for revival. And that is why our true rejoicing with the Torah — Simchat Torah — is placed not at the time of Shavuot, when we received the original tablets, but during the festival immediately following Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.