The Shattered Tablets

Friday, 26 February, 2016 - 11:49 am

The Shattered Tablets 

In the holiest place to Judaism, in the “holy of holies” which is the inner chamber of the holy temple, stood an ark containing Judaism's most precious treasures. The ark contained the ten commandments engraved on two stone tablets, the tablets that were given to Moses by G-d himself. 

Less known, is that the ark contained more than just a set of tablets. The Talmud teaches that the ark also contained the shattered stones of the first set of tablets that Moses broke when he saw the Jews serving the golden calf. The Talmud teaches that “the (second) tablets, as well as the shattered (first) tablets stood in the ark”[1].

The holy of holies was a place of ultimate purity and connection to G-d. Only the High Priest, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, was permitted to enter. In fact, when the high priest entered he would wear four white garments, in contrast to his usual garments made of gold and various colored materials.  The High Priest would remove the “golden garments” before entering the holy of holies, because the holy of holies represented the unity of G-d and the Jewish people unlike gold which was a reminder of the sin of the golden calf. As the Talmud teaches: 

Rav Chisda said: Why does the High Priest not enter the inner precinct in garments of gold to perform the service there? Because the accuser may not act as defender. (‘Gold’ is called the accuser in reference to the Golden Calf. The garments worn by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies there were regarded as propitiatory)[2].

This leads to the question: if the holy of holies was to be free of any reference to the sin of the golden calf, why were the shattered tablets, shattered by Moses as a result of the sin, placed within the ark itself? We must therefore search for the reason that the shattered tablets were placed in the ark. This reason must be important to the extent, that it justified   placing the broken tablets alongside the complete tablets in Judaism’s holiest site.

To study Torah, to grasp Divine wisdom, is to engage in a perpetual paradox. On the one hand one must be utterly humble. All wisdom can only be attained once a person has the humility to understand that there is great wisdom beyond what he already knows. One must be prepared to let go of one’s own deeply held perspective and be open to new possibilities that can shatter deeply held ideas. This is even more so when studying the Torah. To be able to grasp the infinite Divine wisdom, one must transcend one’s his own limited perspective. One must face the limitation of one’s ability to grasp. One must have the humility to appreciate the unbridgeable gap between one’s own mind and the mind of the creator of the universe.  

On the other hand, studying Torah must not be an act of submission and acceptance. The purpose is to engage one’s mind, not to ignore it. Torah study is about engraving the words of Torah in one’s heart and mind. It is about the words of Torah resonating within one’s own mind to the point that they are engraved and they become one’s own perspective. To study Torah one must use the full capacity of his mind. One’s dedication to understanding must be unwavering and complete. 

The holy of holies is the place where heaven kisses earth, where the finite and infinite merge. It is the place that empowers one to be aware of the limits of the human mind, yet to strive for the mind to grasp the infinite. 

And this was the secret of the ark. The ark, the study of the Torah, must have both elements. One must understand the wisdom. The words of Torah must be engraved in one’s mind like the words engraved in the complete tablets. Yet, one must always be humble before the Divine wisdom.

Each of us has an ark in our soul. We must possess both the humility of the shattered tablets, as well as the completeness that comes from comprehensive understanding. We must be humble yet completely engaged in the rigorous, inquisitive quest for wisdom.

Each of us has an ark in our soul.

“The tablets, as well as the shattered tablets stood in the ark[3][4]


[1] Talmud, Baba Basra 14b.

[2] Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 26a.

[3] Talmud, Baba Basra 14b.

[4] Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos vol. 26 Sicha 3. 

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