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Our Human Story Must Be Written By Us

Rabbi Rachel Shoenfeld for the Jewish Community Voice

Parshiot Tetzaveh/Ki Tisa
Ex. 27:20-34:35

Sometimes, the most philosophical questions have the most practical answers. It’s an age-old debate: Do we each actually have control over our own lives? Or, are the stories of our lives pre-written by a Greater Power? One of the most central and powerful stories in Judaism, the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments, answers this question, with real implications for how we live every day.

There are two different stories of the giving of the Ten Commandments, one after the other, in this week’s parsha. The first is in Exodus 31 :18, “When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, God gave him The Two Tablets of Stone, inscribed with the finger of God.” In this story, God makes the tablets, and writes the Commandments, with God’s own finger, on the tablets. These tablets are said by our rabbis to have been miraculous in themselves. Some say they held themselves up, others say they were written in fire. Others say they could be read, and understood, on both sides. Moses brings these wondrous tablets down to earth, to interact with real humanity. Moses sees the golden calf, and in anger, hurls the tablets down to the ground. The tablets shatter.

In the aftermath of this moment, God and Moses talk. God shares that God is the God of forgiveness, and God’s language here about forgiving is used in our synagogues every year on Yorn Kippur.

The story then re-sets for a second try, and Moses climbs again to get the Ten Commandments. This time, in Exodus 34:1: “God said to Moses, ‘Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.”‘ These new tablets are forged of a partnership, between human and Divine.

The midrash says that fragments of the first tablets, along with the now completed second tablets, are then placed in the Ark, and eventually, taken to the Temple in Jerusalem. We honor both sets, but we are able to read, and learn from, the second set.

As someone who likes to scribe, and has dabbled in parchment making, I find it interesting that so much of the difference of these two stories hinges on who, exactly, made the tablets. In the first set of the Ten Commandments, God worked alone. This set of the Ten Commandments couldn’t survive the reality of people on our very human earth. There was no way for these commandments to interact with our flaws and imperfections. These Ten Commandments could not belong on the earth with us; they were shattered when Moses tried.

The second set of the Ten Commandments are the ones that fashioned our Judaism. Written by God on a surface forged by Moses, perhaps as Moses was able to understand them, they are Ultimate Wisdom, but paired with a humanity that is coherent to us. Instead of words of fire, they were written so as to be readable by us humans. These are the Ten Commandments that we have now- -rules to live by, brought to by a paring of humanity and The Divine. The story of our humanity can’t be written by anyone but us. The story of each of our own lives is written by our own, daily actions.