In our “Lessons in Leadership” class, I ask my students: Was it ok for Moses to break the Tablets? At first they are shocked that I would even ask such a question. The incident of the Golden Calf is often referred to as one of the worst breakdown of faith – and leadership – in the desert. How could the people who were just taken out of Egypt, who just witnessed all the miracles and who just received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, build for themselves a “calf” because “they didn’t know what happened to Moses” (Exodus 32: 1)??
For one, sure they knew! They saw him go up the mountain! Two, even if Moses had actually “vanished”, how would a calf made of gold, help?? Don’t they know it was G-d who took them out of Egypt and not Moses?? We often say, ‘if only I witnessed a miracle, I would believe in G-d!’ Here we see the people who witnessed the greatest miracles ever, and yet, within just a few weeks, at best, lost their faith not a “doubt” but to complete idolatry. Clearly, something terrible happened!
As readers, we expect some consequences to the people, but even more so, to the leaders who let that happen. Then we notice something strange: neither Moses nor Aaron get punished for their part in the Golden Calf.
Don’t get me wrong: those directly involved do get punished, but not Aaron, and not Moses. Is it possible that Aaron was not in the wrong supporting the people? that Moses was not in the wrong breaking the tablets??
On round 2, G-d tells him to make a new set of tablets “like the first ones” (Exodus 34:1). This should mean that nothing was wrong with the first ones themselves as far as the content, except this time Moses is going to make them himself. Amazingly, the second set is the durable one, not the first set, which was made by G-d Himself
Research explains the “Ikea” phenomena, and the success of cake mixes which can be almost as expensive as a ready cake. Why go to the trouble of making our own furniture? Baking our cake? We can get it all easily all done! But it turns out that we feel a greater connection when we put effort into making something, then when things come “readymade”.
Similarly, the first set of tablets came in a wondrous show – lightening, thunder, G-d’s voice. Clearly, everybody said yes, na’ase venishma (we will do and we will listen – Exodus 19:8)! What else? Who would dare say no to this grand combination of fear and awe?
But then life crept in and the great excitement of that first “date” (some say, wedding day-) started to wear off. There were dishes in the sink and dirty laundry to sort. Would the relationship be strengthened by more gifts or diligent work?
No doubt, the gifts kept coming, but in the connection between heaven and earth, the ready-made “wow” that came from above was not going to be enough. There was a need to recreate the vows from below; to chisel and carve each letter. Only this was to be enduring.