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Jewish World Review
Reprise at Sinai
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
The Jewish holiday of Shavuos (Pentecost), commemorating G-d's revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah, is observed each year in early summer, on the sixth day of the month of Sivan. Amidst this annual celebration, however, one of Jewish tradition's greatest conundrums often goes overlooked the curious fact that the Jews received neither G-d's tablets nor G-d's law on that profound and glorious day, nor would they receive them until four months later.
Indeed, it was Moses alone who ascended the mountain on the sixth of Sivan to receive the Torah and spent the next 40 days and 40 nights learning the Divine law from the mouth of the Almighty. When he descended on the 17th day of the month of Tammuz and found the Jews worshiping the Golden Calf, he smashed the tablets in history's most dramatic display of national leadership and moral reproof.
The following day, Moses ascended Sinai once again, this time to implore the Almighty to forgive the Jewish people. After 40 more days, on the last day of the month of Av, Moses descended from Sinai to report that G-d had accepted his supplications and granted the people forgiveness. It was therefore on the first day of the month of Elul, in late summer, that Moses ascended Sinai for the third time to receive the second tablets, which he would finally present to the Jewish people on the tenth day of Tishrei, on the Jews' first Yom Kippur.
Whereas the Almighty had both carved out and engraved the first tablets Himself, only after Moses carved out the second tablets did G-d etch His commandments into stone a second time. And in the currents and patterns of Jewish history, we find that the difference between the first and second tablets parallels the difference between the first and second Temples, and that this dichotomy parallels the two states of Mankind before and after the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden.
THE QUEST FOR PERFECTION
The Creator fashioned the first man and woman to be perfect, without defect, and placed them in a perfect world to serve Him. However, since the essence of divine service is self-perfection, Man's condition in Eden poses a logical contradiction: if Man was created perfect, how could he strive for self-perfection?
The condition of Adam in Eden was fundamentally different from the condition of mankind today. Adam's service was not to become perfect but to remain perfect: had he upheld the Creator's single command only for the remainder of the sixth day, the day of his own Creation, until the arrival of the seventh day the first Sabbath Adam would have completed his mission on earth. Unable to resist the temptation of the serpent, however, he ate from the fruit of the forbidden Tree, thereby violating the word of G-d and condemning himself and his progeny to a life of service wholly different from what he had known before.
"By the sweat of your brow shall you toil," declared the Almighty after Adam's sin. Before the sin, the earth gave up its bounty with no physical effort, perfect climate made clothing and shelter unnecessary, and G-d revealed Himself fully to Man, who had no desire other than to serve Him. Now, after the sin, only through hard labor would Adam and his descendants manage to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves. Now, G-d would hide His presence, so that man would have to struggle against his yeitzer hara his evil inclination to come close to His Creator once again.
WITH ONE HEART
When the Jewish people stood together at Sinai, as one man with one heart, in absolute unity and commitment to G-d, they recaptured the lofty spiritual level Adam had possessed in Eden. And because they had reached the highest spiritual level possible for human beings, the Almighty carved out and engraved the tablets, providing for all their spiritual needs just as He had provided for all the material needs of Adam. G-d required nothing more from them but to receive His Torah and uphold it in purity.
Had the fledgling Jewish nation retained that level, they would have entered the land of Israel with Moses, built the Temple in Jerusalem, and ushered in the messianic era. Instead, the awe and grandeur of their divine mission overwhelmed them, the fear of failure panicked them, and the yeitzer hara seduced them into committing the sin of the Golden Calf. Consequently, the Almighty engraved the second tablets only after Moses had carved them, symbolizing the new order in which G-d would withhold His blessing until the Jewish people labored to reclaim the spiritual heights from which they had fallen. Like Adam, they would have to toil to earn the blessing that they had not sufficiently appreciated when it had been freely given.
REBUILDING THE TEMPLE DAY BY DAY
During the reign of King Solomon, the Jewish people achieved once more the level of Adam with the completion of the great Temple in Jerusalem. Every day ten miracles occurred there, reflecting the Jews' state of spiritual perfection, and the nature of their service required only that they retain that level long enough to bring the Messiah. Tragically, the Jews grew complacent in their accomplishments and slipped away from purity of service. Although the Almighty did not raze the Temple immediately, the political division of the kingdom in the days of Solomon's son and the persistent influence of idolatrous practices resulted in the first Temple's ultimate destruction.
With the return from Babylon after 70 years of exile and the construction of the second Temple, the Jews found another chance to attain self-perfection. But the second Temple was an inadequate replacement for the first, and those elders who remembered the era of the kings wept in despair at its inauguration. Five of the miracles did not return, for the sh'chinah the divine presence had itself departed. Like the second tablets, the second Temple served a Jewish nation that had fallen from its former spiritual heights and would have to work its way slowly back to recover what was lost.
We no longer possess the second Temple, and the second tablets are hidden away until the days when the Temple will be rebuilt. But as we enter the month of Elul, the month before the awe and judgment of Rosh Hashanah, history reminds us that the second tablets are our tablets, that only by toiling to observe the commandments inscribed upon them can we find our way out of our spiritual darkness and rekindle the light of the Messiah.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis. Comment by clicking here.
Tu B'Av: Repentance and the foundations of love
Sin of the Golden Calf: Understanding the how and why and resulting Divine punishment
The day the sun stood still
Nemirov massacres and the Chmielnicki uprising
Independent Judea under Shimon HaMaccabee
The Great Revolt begins
Dedication of new walls of Jerusalem
© 2006, Rabbi Yonason Goldson