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Home » Ekev

Ekev: Sacred Stones

Submitted by on August 6, 2006 – 3:52 amNo Comment | 1,417 views

Failed Resolutions

Have you ever made a resolution you didn’t keep?

Have you ever resolved to go to bed early only to wake up with a headache because you didn’t put that book down? Have you ever resolved not to take a second helping, but walked away engorged because your portions were too numerous? Have you ever resolved to attend morning services, but chose instead to sleep in?

Do you feel guilty or at least frustrated? If the answer is yes then you can probably empathize with the way our ancestors felt after they worshiped the golden calf.

It was only forty-days earlier when they all saw G-d on the mountaintop and resolved to worship no other G-d, but him. Now, forty-days later, they failed their first significant test! Was their religion not important to them? Were their Jewish vows not meaningful enough to keep? They despaired of ever succeeding.

So despondent were they that G–d set about to console them.

Perplexing Stones

When Moses secured divine forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf G-d instructed him to carve out two tablets of stone upon which the Ten Commandments would be inscribed. (1) Where did Moses find a quarry in the middle of the desert? The Midrash teaches that a quarry miraculously appeared in Moses’ tent. (2)

This Midrash prompts a number of questions:

  1. Why didn’t G-d provide the second set of tablets from heaven just like he did the first? Why did he create them on earth and instruct Moses to carry them aloft?
  2. The quarry was created according to the precise dimensions required for the tablets, but with rough exterior and jagged edges. If G-d made the stone in precise dimension to help Moses avoid the task of hewing the stone out of a large quarry , why did he not also give it a smooth surface to help Moses avoid the task of smoothing it down?

Letters and Stones

The Talmud teaches that the letters carvedsacred stones into the stone by G-d’s hand were sacred. So sacred in fact, that when Moses descended the mountain for the first time and beheld the pagan spectacle of the golden calf, the tablets grow heavy in his arms. (3)

What made them grow heavy? The disappearance of the letters. The Divine letters, too sacred to countenance the nation’s betrayal of G-d, gathered themselves from the rock face and floated back to heaven. When the Divine letters detached themselves from the tablets the stones grew heavy in Moses’ arms.

The tablets, given to Moses in heaven, were not made of stone, but of spirituality. As Moses descended toward earth the tablets metamorphosed into physical stone. The letters, however, did not change. They remained as holy as they were in heaven. The letters could not countenance the nation’s betrayal, though the stones could.

Body and Soul

The same is true of the human being. We are an amalgam of heaven and earth. Both body and soul are created by G-d. The body assumes a physical condition, and is acclimated to the vicissitudes and weaknesses of our world. The soul remains holy, a fragment of the divine. (4)

The soul thus aspires to nobility, humility and devotion even as the body aspires to self-gratification and pleasure. The soul is goal-oriented and committed even as the body is calm and relaxed. The soul marches to G-d beat, the body dances to its own tune.

That we take on goal-oriented resolutions is not surprising, it is the work and influence of our soul. That we often fail in reaching those goals is also not surprising, it is the work and influence of our body. The body is reluctant to relinquish life’s little pleasures.

G-d could have given us a body that is as holy as our soul. He did that for the angels, but not for us. Why? Because it is our task is to overcome the challenges posed by our physical dimension. To create an oasis for G-d in an environment that is otherwise foreign and even hostile to divinity. Though it is easier to be an angel, our task is more rewarding.

Can we succeed completely? Can we convert our bodies into souls? Can we become as noble and holy as angels are? Many cannot. But total transformation is not our goal. Our goal it to take little steps. One step at a time, because every step counts. Every time we bend our body to the will of our soul we achieve a victory for G-d.

Hewn Stones

This is why G-d created the second set of tablets in Moses’ tent and instructed him to polish them, smooth down their rough edges and then carry them aloft. It was a message to the nation. The stone, like our body, is created by G-d, but placed here on earth it assumes a materialistic and imperfect posture.

It is our task to polish the stone, to smooth out its rough exterior and jagged edges. It is our task to make our physical nature more amenable to our soul. The body cannot be transformed into a soul, but it can be carried aloft. It can be made to house a soul.

That is precisely what Moses did. He took the raw and unfinished stone and made it as perfect as he could. It was by no means perfect, but it was holy enough to be carried aloft.

G-d accepted the finished stones, inscribed Divine letters into them and returned them to earth. The letters, like our soul, remained G-dly and holy. The tablets, like our bodies, though by no means perfect, were perfect enough to house the divine letters. (5) (6)

Footnotes

  1. Deuteronomy, 10:1.
  2. Midrash Tanchumah, Ki Tisa, chapter 29.
  3. Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit, 4: 5.
  4. The correlation between the tablets/letters and bodies/souls can be further inferred from the Talmudic passage that a Torah scholar, who forgot his studies, must be respected just as the broken shards of the first tablets were preserved in the Holy Ark. (Brachos, 8b) The Midrash further amplifies this view by relating the two tablets to the masculine and feminine attributes of the divine. (Shemot Rabbah, 41: 7.)
  5. The first set of tablets was created, pure and unblemished in heaven. It created expectations that left no room for failure. Our ancestors could not live up to those expectations and their failure brought them to despair. The second set of tablets introduced a measured and balanced approach. It is our task to forge ahead every day and take continuous steps in a positive direction. We should not accept failure as a matter of course, but neither should we slide into despair every time it occurs. We must pick up where we left off and continue our forward momentum.
  6. This essay is based on Toras Moshe’s Commentary to Deuteronomy 10: 1. (R. Moshe Alshich, Tzefat, 1508-1600)
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