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OPINION Breaking the Tablets: Writing and Erasing, Remembering and Forgetting the Law. Thoughts for an alternative approach to Shavuot.

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

The story of “Maamad Har Sinai” is a one of revelation, within the framework of a synesthetic experience, in which God writes his commandments onto two stone tablets. The narrative opens many questions and answers few, leaving the reader in a wonder-struck confusion, while it delineates the traits of a unique historical event. Moses climbs up to Mt Sinai in order to receive the Law, while the people stand around the mountain and refrain from touching it or eliciting any other contact with the Divine agent. Upon ending the revelation, upon having finished, or maybe begun, the process of transmission of the Torah, Gd gives the tablets to Moses, an object carrying words “written with the finger of Gd” (Deuteronomy 32:16ff).
(Exodus 31:18) And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.
(Exodus 32:1-4) And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. (2) And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. (3) And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. (4) And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
Immediately after Gd finishes speaking out to Moses the Law, the Torah describes the handing over of the tablets to Moses, presenting them as two objects witnessing the historical event that just took place, or is about to finish taking place. The commandments are written words which defy the transience of human semantics – the finger of Gd has traced the lines composing the letters and words, and the material support (the stone) is thereby sanctified by this presence of the living letters. And then, with no rhetorical transition, no symptom, and no clear sign pointing to what it is that happens thereafter, the people of Israel lapse. They sin. And what is the reason for their fall? Moses is late. “And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount…” According to the Gemara in Shabat 89a, the Hebrew word for “delayed,” “boshesh,” should be read as “bau shesh,” namely “the sixth hour had come.”
R. Joshua b. Levi also said: Why is it written; And when the people, saw that Moses delayed
[boshesh] [to come down from the mount]? ‘Read not boshesh’ [delayed] but ba’u shesh [the sixth hour had come]. When Moses ascended on high, he said to Israel, I will return at the end of forty days, at the beginning of the sixth hour. At the end of forty days Satan came and confounded the world. Said he to them: ‘Where is your teacher Moses?’ ‘He has ascended on high,’ they answered him. ‘The sixth [hour] has come,’ said he to them, but they disregarded him. ‘He is dead’ — but they disregarded him. [Thereupon] he showed them a vision of his bier, and this is what they said to Aaron, for this Moses, the man, etc.

When Moses climbs up to Mt Sinai he tells the people of Israel that he will be back at the beginning of the sixth hour, namely at midday. As soon as the sixth hour comes, and Moses isn’t back, the Gemara presents the “doubt” in his most common allegorical traits – Satan. Doubts mix up the clarity of mind of the people, these doubts turn into visions, hallucinations: Satan came and confounded the world. Moses is seen in his death bed. And the question I wish to ask is: why all this emphasis on the temporal matter? Why do the rabbis point to the deformation of the reading of the word “boshesh,” and point to “Bau shesh”, thus stressing the fact that the fall ensued from the temporal delay of Moses’ descent from the mountain? I wish to argue that there must be something in the shift between two different types of time, certain and uncertain, which unnerves the people, and pushes them to sin.
In order to understand the textual dynamics of this portion we may find some clues as to which strategy the author uses from chapter 10 of Aristotle’s Poetics. There the Greek philosopher uses the term peripeteia to designate the moment in “the plot at which a sudden reversal occurs… In extended use: a sudden or dramatic change; a crisis.” The sudden turn of events is used to provoke in the audience a variety of feelings, ranging from terror to empathy. What happens at this point in the story of the people of Israel is a peripeteia – the sudden turn of events points to a moment in which the people have absolutely no reason to sin for they have just heard the voice of Gd, and their prophet and leader has ascended to Mt Sinai in order to receive the Law. What exactly happens when Moses is delayed?
In order to understand the temporal issue at stake in this portion of the Torah, I wish to turn now to literary theory, and specifically to Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending (1982). Kermode writes that the need for a conclusion, for an appropriate closure for a phase, a period, is a characteristic common to a wide variety of cultures and literatures. From this need emerge those texts which have a clear beginning and a clear end, a definitive arche’ and telos, where both give each and every moment in the sequence of events a fullness of meaning, a clear role within the larger fabric of the story. Order is a primal need, argues Kermode.
And yet, where human beings actually live is within the natural development of events, in the here and now, where one is allowed to see or understand any relation whatsoever to the End or the Beginning:
Men, like poets, rush ‘into the middest,’ in medias res,when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems. The End they imagine will reflect their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations. They fear it, arid as far as we can see have always done so; the End is a figure for their own deaths. (Kermode)
From within the confusion of what Kermode calls the “spot of time in the middle,” people invest gargantuan efforts into their endeavors to see instants as part of broader narratives, while trying to look beyond the End in order to see the general structure of the Whole which will give meaning to the single instants of the here and now. In a way the story told by the Torah, and interpreted through the Gemara in Shabat 89a, is a story in which the time frame, what Kermode calls the different “fictions of time,” changes abruptly, a moment of transition from a framework provided by Moses’ promise (“I will be back on the 40th day by the 6th hour”) to a total lack of framework (“and Satan confused the world etc.”).
“Let us take a very simple example, the ticking of a clock. We ask what it says: and we agree that it says tick-tock. By this fiction we humanize it, make it talk our language. Of course, it is we who provide the fictional difference between the two sounds; tick is our word for a physical beginning, tock our word for an end. We say they differ. What enables them to be different is a special kind of middle. We can perceive a duration only when it is organized. It can be shown by experiment that subjects who listen to rhythmic structures such as tick-tock, repeated identically, ‘can reproduce the intervals within the structure accurately, but they cannot grasp spontaneously the interval between the rhythmic groups,’ that is, between tock and tick, even when this remains constant. The first interval is organized and limited, the second not… The fact that we call the second of the two related sounds tock is evidence that we use fictions to enable the end to confer organization and form on the temporal structure. The interval between the two sounds, between tick and tock is now charged with significant duration. The clock’s tick-tock I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form; and the interval between tock and tick represents purely successive, disorganized time of the sort that we need to humanize.
[…] Tick is a humble genesis, tock a feeble apocalypse; and tick-tock is in any case not much of a plot. […] All such plotting presupposes and requires that an end will bestow upon the whole duration and meaning. To put it another way, the interval must be purged of simple chronicity, of the emptiness of tock-tick, humanly uninteresting successiveness. It is required to be a significant season, kairos poised between beginning and end. It has to be, on a scale much greater than that which concerns the psychologists, an instance of what they call ‘temporal integration’—our way of bundling together perception of the present, memory of the past, and expectation of the future, in a common organization. Within this organization that which was conceived of as simply successive becomes charged with past and future: what was chronos becomes kairos… chronos is ‘passing time’ or ‘waiting time’ — that which, according to Revelation, ‘shall be no more’ — and kairos is the season, a point in time filled with significance, charged with a meaning derived from its relation to the end.”
The transition from the kairos of Moses’ promise to the chronos of the insignificant “spot of time in the middle” is one which is accompanied by catastrophe.
(Exodus 32:7-8, 15-20) And the LORD said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. […]And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables. And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp. And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear. And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.
Moses is told by Gd what is happening at the feet of Mt Sinai. The people have committed idolatry and they have declared that the statue they made is the Gd who freed them from Egypt. Upon descending from the mountain, with the tablets written by Gd, Moses sees the debauch of the people and, seized by anger and throws the tablets, breaking them at the very feet of the mountain. The narrative is fraught with problematic aspects, many of which have been dealt with by the Midrash and by the Gemara: if Gd told Moses that the people had sinned, why is he so angry? How could Moses decide to break the tablets written by the finger of Gd? Did Gd tell him to do so? The Midrashim, Shemot Rabba, Avot DeRabi Natan, the Sifri and others have engaged these questions. Before moving on to the leading motif of this interpretation of the breaking of the tablets, namely Reish Lakish’s rather radical endorsement in Shabbat 87a of Moses’ breaking of the tablets, I would like to propose my personal reading of what happens in this portion.
Upon leaving the borders of a kairos-based framework provided by Moses’ promise as to when he would come back, the people of Israel find themselves within the unnerving lack of borders of chronos, a sequence of unrelated and insignificant instants. Immersed in chronos, in the middle of the desert (in and of itself an allegory of uncertainty and lack of foundations) the people are assaulted by doubts, questions, speculations – he is dead, he should have been back… did he said the sixth hour or didn’t he? In chronos the universe becomes an irbuvia, a mixture, senseless, lacking coherence: this is what the Satan, allegory of doubt, leaves behind him. In this state, Moses’ being late (and on whether he was late or not Rashi certainly makes a convincing argument) is seen as a menace. The peripeteia of the story is sudden – the transition between chronos and kairos is immediate. And the people necessitate an ideological system that will lead them out of this subjective desert, out of the uncertainty of doubts. While Gd gives Moses the tablets of the Law, in and of itself a material support carrying the ineffable significance of Divine semantics, the people, down at the feet of the mountain, order Aaron to make them a representation, what is then defined as “egel massecha,” an aesthetic elaboration of that which cannot be represented or limited or placed (“A Gd that will lead us in the desert”). So it may be argued that this story is the allegorical representation of a natural tendency in each and every one of us – a need to feel the Divine as present, a lump of matter that is palpable, edible, understandable. And yet Gd, the Gd that gives the laws to Moses, imposes uncertainty, indeterminacy, chronos. Sure, there are promises, but when we are immersed in the senselessness of the moment, the direction towards the telos is easily lost.
Time and faith are thus intimately related. The Hebrew verb rendered by “to be delayed” is active – Moses actively stays on the mountain, purposefully descends later than he promised. There is a connection between the verb בושש in the passage we are analyzing today, and the description of Adam and Eve in Eden before the Fall, as לא יתבוששו. The midrash connects the two terms and argues that there is an issue of time in the three stories of Eden, of Moses and the Tablets and Sisra and his chariot. In all three there is a temporal factor which leads to a fall.
בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת בראשית פרשה יח
(כה) [ויהיו שניהם ערומים] וגו’ אמר ר’ אלעזר שלשה הן שלא המתינו בשלוותן שש שעות, אילו הן אדם הראשון וישראל וסיסרא, אדם הראשון ולא יתבוששו לא באו שש שעות, ישראל וירא העם כי בושש משה (שמות לב א) באו שש שעות, סיסרא מדוע בושש רכבו לבוא (שופטים ה כח) בכל יום היה למוד לבוא בג’ שעות בד’ שעות, היום באו שש שעות ולא בא אתמהא. ולא יתבוששו, והנחש היה ערום, לא הוה צורך קרייה למימר אלא ויעש י”י אלהים לאדם ולאשתו וגו’ (בראשית ג כא), אמרו ר’ יהושע בן קרחה להודיעך מאי זו חיטיה קפץ עליהם אותו הרשע, מתוך שראם מתעסקין בדרך הארץ ונתאוה לה, אמר ר’ יעקב דכפר חנן שלא להפסיק בפרשתו שלנחש.
While Moses is late and thus the people Fall, Adam and Eve are in no need to wait or be on time – the lapse into cronos, doubts, skepticism, are all due to the impatience, the need for knowledge, the need for certainty. Feeling the security of a temporal framework, a beginning and an end, a tick and a tock, Creation and Apocalypse, provides the consciousness with fulfillment – time is no longer, to use the expression of a modern theologian, “one damn thing after another” but a stage in a steadily changing process.
Moses’ response to this tragic lapse into the despair of chronos is clear – the tablets must be broken. Without going into all the nuances of the midrashic engagement with the problem of a human being breaking the Divinely made tablets, carrying the Laws written by the finger of Gd, the rabbis have tackled this decision by formulating three possible explanations for this action:
a. Moses breaks the Tablets as a result of his own decision and initiative.
b. Moses breaks the Tablets following a Divine commandment to do so.
c. The Tablets fall from Moses’ hands and break.
(Deuteronomy 9:15-17) So I turned and came down from the mount, and the mount burned with fire: and the two tables of the covenant were in my two hands. And I looked, and, behold, ye had sinned against the LORD your God, and had made you a molten calf: ye had turned aside quickly out of the way which the LORD had commanded you. And I took the two tables, and cast them out of my two hands, and brake them before your eyes.
)Deuteronomy 34: 10-12) And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face; In all the signs and the wonders, which the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land; And in all that mighty hand, and in all the great terror which Moses shewed in the sight of all Israel.
In the first of these two passages, Moses recounts again the events of the Golden Calf; in the second passage, Moses has already died, and the Torah emphasizes specifically the “great terror” performed by the prophet upon breaking the tablets. The fall was, in his eyes, most sudden – “ye had turned aside quickly out of the way which the LORD had commanded you.” Time is of central importance – the quick fall of the people is a painful reality for Moses. But the most important issue at stake here is that these two passages led the rabbis to state with great uncompromising certainty that Moses broke the tablets out of his own decision, and that Gd backed his decision. This subject of the merging of human intention and Divine decision will be discussed in another article, but I should note that it is of greatest interest to see how the human prophet acts out of instinctive urge, without asking Gd, and the rabbis invested great effort into justifying the potentially problematic decisions made in those cases. Rashi, commenting on the last verse of the Torah, uses the Sifri to stress the point that “הסכימה דעת הקב”ה לדעתו,” that Gd backed and merged with Moses’ cognition, and then adds Reish Lakish’s very strong statement on this matter in Shabat 87a “אשר שברת – יישר כוחך ששברת” – you broke the tablets: and a good job you did in doing so!
תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת פז. – הסכים הקב”ה על ידו שנאמר (שמות לד) אשר שברת ואמר ר”ל יישר כחך ששיברת ת”ש (שמות יט)
And how do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave His approval? Because it is said, “which thou brakest,” and Resh Lakish interpreted this: All strength to thee that thou brakest it!
The action performed by Moses entails the voluntary elision of the Torah in order to pursue the strengthening of the Torah – breaking the Tablets in order to state a point. The Gemara in Yevamot 62a, and the midrashic reference in Rashi’s commentary to the last verse in Torah, both point to a simple fact: namely that at times it is necessary to do things which we repute necessary, and which apparently contradict the accepted order of events. Breaking the Law, literally, in order to save it, in order to reinstate it. As Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk wrote in his “Meshech Chochma,” an anthology of his interpretations of the Torah, when Moses came down from Sinai he saw that the people of Israel had erred to such a point upon making the Golden Calf, that they no longer had doubts – those very doubts represented by Satan in the Talmud, disappear as Israel adores the material fixity of an object, a place. Upon seeing how deep into their mistake they all were, Moses raged with anger, tossing the tablets – Meir of Dvinsk sees in this action the clear demonstration that there is no sanctity in things, in objects, whether a Golden Calf or the Tablets written by the finger of Gd. For Moses knew that had he passed on the tablets, the people of Israel would have turned them into objects of adoration, into pagan like deities – by breaking them, the prophet shows the people that the Torah and the material support it is transmitted by are not the same thing, and that the uncertainty of an ineffable Gd is, paradoxically, the sole certainty.
משך חכמה על שמות ל”ב פסוק טו – “וזהו ויהי כאשר קרב אל המחנה וירא את העגל ומחולות וראה כי גדל טעותן עד אשר לא חשבוהו לספק כלל, כי לא רצו לעמוד – אולי ירד משה ולהביט מרחוק על ביאתו, רק היו משוקעין בטעותם בתועבות העגל אשר חשבוהו לאלקי, הבין טעותן “ויחר אף משה וישלך מידיו את הלוחות”, רוצה לומר כי אין שום קדושה וענין אלקי כלל בלעדי מציאות הבורא יתברך שמו, ואם הביא הלוחות היו כמחלפים עגל בלוח ולא סרו מטעותן, אולם כאשר שבר הלוחות ראו איך המה לא הגיעו אל מטרת האמונה בה’ ותורתו הטהורה.”
Believing is breaking, not framing; it entails the embracing of a state of perpetual uncertainty, not constancy and univocal truths. Believing entails, as Moses’ act points out in a rather eloquent way, a constant tearing apart, breaking of idols, not making them. When the actual breaking takes place, the Torah stresses the fact that the tablets are written with the finger of Gd, that the Law is carved into the stone by a Divine authorship. This should, as some of the midrasim have pointed out, have prevented Moses from breaking them – no human being is allowed to or capable of undoing the work of Divine “hands” – and yet Moses’ anger is great, and the people are sinning, and the mistake must be undone on the spot, and it is, ultimately, undone with the breaking of the Law. Rav Meir of Dvinsk bases his utterly iconoclastic conception of the Divine on the Moses’ violent act – there is no sanctity in things, no sanctity in place, no intrinsic sanctity in time – sanctity is performed, sanctity is carved out by human beings.
This physical act of transmission is a paradoxical one – tradition is initiated, triggered as a chain reaction with a violent moment of iconoclasm, the writing of the Torah performed by its erasure. The Law is passed to the people by breaking the Tablets . We might even argue that for the people of Israel to accept the Torah, it is not presence, fixity and univocal meaning that matter, but rather quite the opposite – Moses purposefully delays his descent from Sinai, and this ignites a reaction in the people who reveal their profound fear of cronos, uncertainty.
The mature acceptance of the Torah ensues, therefore, from an acceptance of Gd’s otherness, of the distance that separates the people from the Divine, and from a voluntarily creative engagement with that very space. To use Donald Winnicott’s terms, what happens in this portion of the Torah is similar to the process experienced by the infant upon being weaned and thus partially separated by his mother, as his illusions of omnipotence wither away into the void, and his attachment to reality is transformed into a necessary engagement with difference – weaning takes place when the infant realizes that this feeling of proximity with the mother’s breast is an illusion and that what we call consciousness is actually a state of existential solitude which must lead to independence, self-awareness and, possibly, also to humility. Winnicott sees as one of the duties of a mother that of showing the infant that omnipotence is an illusion – a process accompanied by the formation of a transitional area which will allow the individual to experience and process objective reality in very personal and creative ways. The playfulness of the transitional object is nowhere near the material fixity of the golden calf – it is more like the material tablet carrying the ineffable writings of Gd. What is this area of play? And how is play feasible in a realm like the desert, and without the certainty of a leader who will lead you out of the abyss of uncertainty?
“It is assumed here that the task of reality-acceptance is never really completed, that no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and that the relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience which is not challenged (arts, religion, etc.). This is intermediate area is in direct continuity with the play area of the small child who is ‘lost’ in play” – Donald Winnicott, Playing and Reality.
The definitive detachment between the history of Israel and the life of Moses takes place, of course, upon his death. Upon his death, the people of Israel face, once again, both mortality and uncertainty.
Talmud Bavli, Temurah 16a: ‘Rav Judah reported in the name of Samuel: Three thousand traditional laws were forgotten during the period of mourning for Moses’. They said to Joshua: ‘Ask’; he replied: It is not in heaven. They [the Israelites] said to Samuel: ‘Ask’; he replied: [Scripture says:] These are the commandments, implying [that since the promulgation of these commandments] no prophet has now the right to introduce anything new. […] Rav Judah reported in the name of Rab: When Moses departed [this world] for the Garden of Eden he said to Joshua: ‘Ask me concerning all the doubts you have’. He replied to him: ‘My Master, have I ever left you for one hour and gone elsewhere? Did you not write concerning me in the Torah: But his servant Joshua the son of Nun departed not out of the tabernacle? Immediately the strength [of Moses] weakened and [Joshua] forgot three hundred laws and there arose [in his mind] seven hundred doubts [concerning laws]. Then all the Israelites rose up to kill him. The Holy One, blessed be He, then said to him [Joshua]: ‘It is not possible to tell you. Go and occupy their attention in war!”
In this passage from the Temurah Tractate, one can detect an obvious anxiety over how to deal with the void left behind after Moses’ death. This space is not only a political or a spiritual one – it is, so to speak, an epistemological one. How will Israel know reality? How will they be empowered to interpret reality through the Law while overcome by the void of absence? The Golden Calf is gone, burnt and ground and fed to the Israelites; the prophet is gone, buried in a location unknown to all; all that’s left are two new tablets written by Moses himself this time, and the fragments of the first ones… As William Kolbrener has argued recently, the trauma of Moses’ death brings with it the loss of a privileged access to the Divine, and this loss is manifested in the loss of the Law or part of it. The people turn to their new prophet and leader, Joshua, telling him to “Ask!” and giving voice to their frustrated desire to recapture the lost prophetic experience. But it is also the expression of an anxiety about inhabiting a world without the prophetic certainty afforded by Moses. A world of chronos and epistemological dispersion.
Temurah 15b – R. Judah reported in the name of Samuel: All the ‘grape-clusters’ who arose from the days of Moses until Joseph b. Jo’ezer learnt Torah like Moses our Teacher. From that time onward, they did not learn Torah like Moses our Teacher. But did not Rav Judah report in the name of Samuel: Three thousand halachoth were forgotten during the period of mourning for Moses? — Those laws which were forgotten were forgotten, but those which were learnt they learnt like Moses our Teacher. But has it not been taught: After the death of Moses, if those who pronounced unclean were in the majority, they [the Rabbis] declared [the object] unclean, and if those who pronounced clean were in the majority, they [the Rabbis] declared [it] clean?
This is the entrance of the people of Israel and their rabbis into the realm of disagreement. The new world in which Israel wakes up after Moses’ death is a world of dispute and majority vs minority – as opposed to the clear-cut and singular decisions made by Moses, this is now the place and time for disputes, synchronic and diachronic. The anxieties of the people are expressed in the search for Moses within Joshua, and ultimately in their threat to kill him – upon asking him to reveal and Joshua forgets more Laws, the infuriated people opt for physical violence. For the people of Israel assisting to this traumatic transition, there are only two possibilities: either all (Moses, prophecy, clear answers, etc.) or nothing (Joshua’s forgetfulness, lack of certainty, disputes, etc.). The solution to all this is, for Gd, sending Joshua to conquer the Land – Law is not an option for him, but war certainly is.
Within the interstices of this dichotomy, separating nothingness from All, comes the solution of Otniel ben Kenaz:
Temurah 16a: “It has been taught: A thousand and seven hundred kal va-chomer and gezerah shavah and specifications of the Scribes were forgotten during the period of mourning for Moses. Said R. Abbuha: Nevertheless Othniel the son of Kenaz restored [these forgotten teachings] as a result of his dialectics, as it says: And Othniel the son of Kenaz, the brother of Caleb, took it
The process starts with the breaking of the tablets, passes through the crisis of the Golden Calf and then finds a last breaking point in Moses’ death – the process leads from Revelation to the dispersion of meaning within the hermeneutics of suspicion of rabbinical discourses. Mourning for that immediacy is what we do – accepting the transience of things is what we are called to do. For this transience, which Freud bound to the understanding of mortality and to the process of mourning and libido re-elaboration, is what one engages with when interpreting a text, learning Torah, misunderstanding things, making mistakes. It is what Freud called the “revolt in our minds against Mourning” which prevents us from understanding one simple principle – for there to be tradition, the tablets must be broken, shattered, the writing of Gd erased, the experience of Sinai forgotten. A space of nothingness must be created for there to be a chance for something different, something which is not univocal and Divine but human and forever changing.
There is a little known text by Franz Kafka, entitled “A Message from the Emperor,” which exemplifies this engagement with the void left by death and separation. Here is the text in a recent translation by Mark Harman (
The emperor—it is said—sent to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun, precisely to you he sent a message from his deathbed. He bade the messenger kneel by his bed, and whispered the message in his ear. So greatly did he cherish it that he had him repeat it into his ear. With a nod of his head he confirmed the accuracy of the messenger’s words. And before the entire spectatorship of his death—all obstructing walls have been torn down and the great figures of the empire stand in a ring upon the broad, soaring exterior stairways—before all these he dispatched the messenger. The messenger set out at once; a strong, an indefatigable man; thrusting forward now this arm, now the other, he cleared a path though the crowd; every time he meets resistance he points to his breast, which bears the sign of the sun; and he moves forward easily, like no other. But the crowds are so vast; their dwellings know no bounds. If open country stretched before him, how he would fly, and indeed you might soon hear the magnificent knocking of his fists on your door. But instead, how uselessly he toils; he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years; and if he were to burst out at last through the outermost gate—but it can never, never happen—before him still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment. Nobody reaches through here, least of all with a message from one who is dead. You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.
It is rather clear how Kafka’s story fits in with the narrative I have been weaving here– the message is sent, it never arrives and all the addressee can do is sit at his / her window and wonder what those words were. Are we to consider the message as something univocal, true, foundational and knowable? And if so how are we to deal with the dispersion of meaning in the rabbinical tradition? How, that is, are we to accept the death of Moses? Or, on the other hand, are we to accept this death, mourn it and re-elaborate the libido for presence into an acceptance of absence? The messenger in Kafka’s story is carrier of a message which only he knows and which he has been order to pass on to you – in this version of tradition and transmission, the revealed truth, the message whispered in the ears of the “messenger” never reaches the addressee, never can reach the addressee. In the Torah version of this story, the messenger has to die, and the addressee receives the message, but then that same message is partially lost or forgotten and has to be complemented by the personal work of the individual.
I wish to conclude with Rav Yitzchak Hutner, author of the little known “Pachad Yitzchak,” and his rather radical outlook on the breaking of the Tablets. The following passage is taken from his Kuntress on Chanukah, Chapter 3:
There are times when the elision of the Torah is its very existence, as it is written “As you broke the Tablets: and a good job you did.” The act of breaking the tablets was an act of confirmation of the existence of the Torah, performed by means of its annulment. For as it is said in Eiruvin 54a, had it not been due to the breaking of the Tablets, the people would not have forgotten the Torah. From this we understand a beautiful and innovative principle, which is that the Torah grows by means or thanks to its own being forgotten, to such a point that the Gemara congratulates Moses upon breaking the tablets. […] The multiplication of laws takes place [thanks to Otniel Ben Kenaz’ dialectics] specifically because before three hundred laws were forgotten [following Moses’ death].
Dialectics, dispute, discussion, quarrel, lack of a univocal agreement, and the endless multiplication of opinions and ideas is the living proof that the breaking of the Tablets, the elision of the Torah, the Mosaic violent act of iconoclasm performed upon seeing the vain paganism of the people of Israel at the Golden Calf, was the right thing to do. Forgetting provides cognitive space for further elaboration, fragmentation creates the conditions for a new formation, and the ensuing “wars of Torah” are the living word of Gd multiplying itself in the endless meanders of rabbinical hermeneutics.

*Ph.D., Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University