The festival of Shavuot, which begins at sundown May 30, focuses on Moses receiving the tablets of the law. But an even more fascinating part of the story is when he shatters them. In an astounding midrash, Moses’ act is portrayed as the epitome of loyalty to the people, but it also teaches God about community and continuity.
Descending Mount Sinai, Moses sees the golden calf that the Israelites made while he was gone, a mortal sin according to the Torah he’s carrying, so he decides not to give it to them. The midrash, in Avot D’Rabbi Natan, explains: “Moses started to turn back, but the Elders saw him and ran after him. Moses held on to one side of the tablets, they held on to the other, but Moses was stronger. … He looked at the tablets and noticed that the writing had disappeared from them. ‘How can I give the Israelites blank tablets?’ he thought and decided it would be better to break them instead.”
Moses realized there could be no Torah without a community to follow its teachings. Better the Torah be withdrawn than its recipients destroyed. God agreed and erased the laws from the tablets.
Blank tablets aren’t simply tablets lacking inscriptions. They are also tablets written in a language people no longer speak or understand. This midrash teaches that there is no value in Torah for Torah’s sake; its value derives from those who live its traditions. Even God embraced the primacy of the people, however imperfect we may be, over a “perfect” but unachievable, Torah.
Will the tablets of our time survive their collision with today’s culture and emerge recast into an authentic Torah for the future? What’s at stake is more than our own Jewish fate. Judaism, like humanity itself, is at a crossroads. If Judaism fails to reimagine itself, the consequences will be devastating; to some they already are. Creating a sustainable, open-sourced, nonhierarchical, collaborative Judaism is part of today’s global urgency to create a similarly sustainable planet.
This powerful narrative is awaiting inscription upon our generation’s tablets. It comes with considerable risk, some loss and the potential for great reward. Like the midrashic tug of war between the Elders and Moses over the ancient tablets, our Torah is wrenched between the weight of the past and the call of the future. Which will ensure its salvation and that of the people to whom it’s continually given: a tighter grip or a more encompassing embrace?
Rabbi Adina Lewittes is the founder of Sha’ar Communities, a network that promotes an innovative, pluralistic approach to building Jewish identity by creating multiple portals into Jewish life and community.