Zot Habracha-Teshuva

At the end of our parsha (Zot Habracha), which is the end of the Torah, the verse mentions, “all the strong hand and all the awesome power that Moshe displayed before the eyes of the Jewish people” (Deut 34:12).  Rashi says, rather enigmatically, that the verse refers to Moshe when he broke the tablets that were given to him on Mt. Sinai.

Our questions are many here: 1) What is so awesome about shattering the tablets, upon which were engraved the ten commandments?   2) why does Rashi mention this event forty years after it happened, just as the Jews are about to enter the Land of Israel?   3) Why does the Torah allude to this act at its conclusion, just when Moshe wished to praise and bless the Jews?  Mentioning what was probably the lowest point in Jewish history up until that time seems like a rather sad way of bringing the Torah to conclusion!

To make things even more complicated, Moshe broke the tablets on the six of Sivan (Shavuot), as he descended from Mt. Sinai and found the Jews worshipping the golden calf.  But, God did not respond to Moshe’s act until forty days later, when Moshe returned to ascend Mt. Sinai on the 17 of Tammuz.  At that time, God said to Moshe, “Well done, more power to you for breaking the tablets.”  Even so, according to Rashi, the Jews did not find out about this dialogue between God and Moshe until forty years later as they were about to enter Israel.  If Moshe’s act of breaking the tablets was so commendable, why did God only tell him so forty days later, and why did the Jews only find out about it forty years later?

At times, we undergo traumatic events, the meaning of which only becomes clear later in life, after we have digested and internalized the events.  In the case of the golden calf, the Talmud (Avoda Zarah 4B) tells us that it took place “in order to provide an opening for ba’alei tshuva.”  That is, the act of the golden calf opened for the Jews a new path in serving God, through teshuva, which is what God taught Moshe when he went up the mountain for a second time on the 17 of Tammuz.    Additionally, the sin of the golden calf led indirectly to a higher form of Torah being given to the Jews.  The first time he went up the mountain, Moshe returned only with the five books of Moses and the book of Joshua.  However, when he returned with the second tablets, he also brought the entire oral Torah, including the Mishnah and Midrash.  So, the sin of the golden calf led to a higher form of Torah being granted to the Jews.

With this understanding, we may be able to answer the questions above.  What was awesome about the breaking of the tablets is that it led to the service of teshuva and ultimately to receiving a higher form of the Torah.  The 17th of Tammuz is a fast day that is destined to become a day of happiness and celebration, and that is why God chose to congratulate Moshe on that day.  And yet, the full impact and results of the day did not sink in and internalize until much later, which is why Moshe only informed them of God’s response forty years later, when they were ready to enter the land of Israel and lead lives of Torah.

For a longer and more detailed version, go to www.jerusalemconnection.org

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol 9, page 237-243

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