This weekend we take a moment out of the regular Shabbat cycle, which puts us in Leviticus, and instead we move back to Exodus 33/34. In and among the verses is the connection to Passover, “ You shall observe the Feast of the Unleavened Bread….” (34:18) But before that we read about another set of tablets – the second ones Moses brings down from the Mountain. You remember what happened to the first set, right? Moses came down the mountain with this brand spanking new set of tablets, written by the finger of God, with the ten “Dibrot” – “utterances” which would form the basis for all of Torah. But when Moses came down to share these words with the Israelites, he found them dancing around a Golden Calf. Moses smashed those tablets and went back up the mountain.
There are two interesting differences between the first and second time Moses comes down the mountain. First, the Torah is specific about saying that Moses carved this new set, not God. They may have looked the same, and had the same words written on them, but this time, Moses had to make them himself. “So Moses carved two tablets of stone, like the first, and early in the morning, he went up on Mount Sinai as Adonai had commanded him.” (Ex 34:4) The second difference is that God came down with Moses the second time, “Adonai came down in a cloud; God stood with him there…” (Ex 34:5) unlike the first time when Moses came down the mountain alone.
What to make of these differences? In between the two, the people committed a huge mistake, convincing Aaron to build the Golden Calf. They stopped believing in God’s constant presence and turned away. Moses was able to talk God out of destroying the whole community, but just barely. This is probably the lowest point of the relationship between God and the people. There were consequences.
By having Moses write the tablets, God was putting distance between God-self and the people. And there was a level of responsibility that Moses had to accept in leaving the people so vulnerable. So, he had to carve the tablets himself. But he wasn’t alone, and God wasn’t out of the picture completely. God stood by Moses when he needed that presence, as he stood in front of the people and pled for their lives. It was time to regroup after the catastrophe, and God was able to reassure Moses, and in turn, the people, that God wasn’t abandoning them.
When we mess up really, really badly, we not only have to accept responsibility, but we have to be the ones to fix it. We need to carve those tablets ourselves and stand in front of everyone to make it better. Even at the lowest point in our most important relationships, Torah teaches us that there’s a way to fix it, if we want to. it’s important to know that we won’t be alone. That which gives us strength, whether it’s faith or community or something else, will help us rebuild. We take into our hearts our utterances, the ones that will guide us through our lives. We may carry the Divine broken pieces with us, but the human ones we carve ourselves are the ones that last.