Shabbat Parah – Parshat Ki Tissa


In Rembrandt’s famous painting of Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, hanging in the Berlin Art Gallery, the prophet is depicted as holding the tablets above his head about to smash them to the ground. Moses does this intentionally as he does not want to present the tablets to the nation that has worshipped the golden calf.

While this is a straightforward reading of the account contained in this week’s parasha, there is another opinion, presented in the Midrash, that Moses did not break the tablets deliberately. Rather, they fell from his hands and broke on their own. Yalkut Shimoni 

(Ki Tisa 393) says: “Moses looked at the tablets and saw the writing fly away. The tablets became heavy in Moses’ hands and they fell from his hands and shattered.”

Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik (d.1993, Chumash Mesorat HaRav 

p. 291) raises an interesting question on this Midrash.

At a later stage, Moses is told by G-d to carve two blank tablets, and carry them up Mount Sinai. “So he hewed two stone tablets like the first ones, and arose early in the morning and ascended Mount Sinai as G-d had commanded him, with two stone tablets in his hands.” (Shemot 35:4)

Apparently, climbing up the mountain with two tablets presented no difficulty for Moses. Yet, coming down with the first set of tablets, proved too heavy for him. Simple physics would suggest the opposite should be true.

If we accept the Midrash’s version, how can climbing up Mount Sinai with a load be easier than descending Mount Sinai with the same load?

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that when Moses realised the people had sinned and had let him down, he was reduced to being a man carrying heavy weights. The force of gravity and the limits of his physical strength proved too much for him and the first tablets fell from his hands.

When Moses ascended for the second time, he was filled with love for G-d and yearning on behalf of his people that they should be forgiven for their lapse. In this role, Moses could overcome all physical and psychological obstacles. Moses in this mode was capable of carrying not only the two tablets but the entire world on his shoulders!