The Broken Tablets of Sinai
(excerpted from Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing & Inner Wholeness
by Estelle Frankel)
The broken tablets were also carried in an ark. In so far as they represented everything shattered everything lost, they were the law of broken things, the leaf torn from the stem in a storm, a cheek touched in fondness once but now the name forgotten. How they must have rumbled, clattered on the way even carried so carefully through the waste land, how they must have rattled around until the pieces broke into pieces, the edges softened crumbling, dust collected at the bottom of the ark ghosts of old letters, old laws. In so far as a law broken is still remembered these laws were obeyed. And in so far as memory preserves the pattern of broken things these bits of stone were preserved through many journeys and ruined days even, they say, into the promised land.—Roger Kamenetz
Fifty days after leaving Egypt, while encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the entire Israelite nation, a nation of newly freed slaves, was graced with a collective spiritual awakening. According to legend, at the break of dawn on the fiftieth day following the Exodus, a deep stillness and silence descended on Mt. Sinai. This silence was unlike any other the people had ever experienced. In its wake the entire Israelite nation collectively perceived the essential oneness and interconnectedness of all being. Encamped at the foot of the mountain, say the Rabbis, “as one person with one heart,”2 they simultaneously heard and saw the voice of the divine as it clothed itself in the words of the Decalogue. At this moment, according to the midrash, “No bird chirped, no fowl fluttered, no ox lowed, the angels did not fly, the Seraphim did not utter the Kedusha [sanctification prayer], the sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak; the universe was silent and mute. And the voice came forth ‘I am the Infinite (YHVH), your God.’”The revelation at Mt. Sinai marked the climax of the Exodus and, according to legend, was its very purpose, for Israel was redeemed from Egypt in order to receive the Torah and bear witness to God’s oneness and presence within creation. Everything that occurred up until that moment, including the exile and enslavement as well as the miraculous redemption, was simply preparation for the revelation of the divine word or dibbur at Sinai. But just as the primordial light revealed at creation shattered the vessels created to contain it, the revelation at Mt. Sinai proved to be a moment of divine illumination too intense for its earthly recipients. According to legend, the Israelites heard only the silent Hebrew letter aleph of the initial divine utterance—Anochi (I am)—before their souls left their bodies. In essence, they died, or you might say their physical vessels shattered when they heard/saw the word of God! This death, the legend tells us, was temporary, for a host of angels immediately descended from the heavens to resuscitate the Israelites by sprinkling a dew of redemption upon them. In the words of an ancient midrash:
When the word of God went forth from the mouth of the Holy One of Blessing . . . sparks and lightning went forth . . . and when Israel heard the word spoken from the mouth of the Holy One of Blessing, they ran and retreated a distance of twelve miles and their souls left them, as it says [in the Song of Songs] “my soul departed with his utterance. . . .” What did the Holy One of Blessing do? He brought down the dew of redemption with which the dead will be revived in the messianic future. In its uniquely metaphoric style, this midrash is teaching us about the nature of spiritual awakenings, which are often first experienced as a death or mortal blow to the ego, as the modern-day mystic Andrew Harvey describes in his autobiographical account of his own spiritual awakening. “There is a violent beauty,” Harvey writes, “in revelation that the soul loves but the ego fears as death.” It is a death, however, that also brings life, for as one dies to a sense of oneself as separate, one enters into proper alignment with the totality that is God. In mystical terms, this is paradoxically when true healing occurs.6 At moments of spiritual awakening, we realize we are not only who we thought we were—an individual consciousness or separate self who lives within the boundaries we call “I”—but also part of an ineffable unity. For the Israelites, the revelation at Mt. Sinai was such a transformative moment of awakening. But being spiritual novices, the Israelites were unprepared for the intensity of the vision with which they were graced, and as a result they were unable to hold on to it or integrate its significance. They were like a person who sees beyond the illusion of separation under the influence of a psychedelic drug but is unable to incorporate that vision into ordinary life after the effects of the drug have worn off. In fact, the Israelites were left feeling confused and terrified by what they perceived. So when Moses tarried on the mountain top, they panicked and sought reassurance in one of the familiar, concrete, manmade idols of their past, the golden calf. The nameless, formless, infinite God of being and becoming that spoke to them out of the emptiness or no-thingness of the desert, was simply too frightening to grasp. When Moses then returned at the end of forty days, he found the people worshiping the golden calf, and instinctively (perhaps also impulsively) he threw down the tablets of the law that he had received, shattering them to bits.
But something amazing happened after Moses broke the tablets. According to legend, the Israelites proceeded to gather up the broken pieces. Realizing their mistake and what they had lost, they collected the fragmented remains of their mystical vision, and they began to mourn their loss and repent their folly. In fact, they spent the next eighty days in a process of repentance that would ultimately earn them divine forgiveness. On what was to become the first Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, the Israelites were given a second set of tablets and a second chance, as described in the Biblical narrative following the story of the golden calf: “YHVH said to Moses: ‘Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that had been on the tablets that you shattered’” (Exodus 34:1). According to legend, the Israelites carried the two sets of tablets—the broken and the whole—around with them in an ark for the rest of their desert journey. Both sets of tablets were taken into the Promised Land, say the rabbis, where they were kept side by side until they were eventually placed in the holy temple in Jerusalem. So what does it mean that the Torah was given not once, but twice? What was different about these two revelations? And what spiritual lessons can we learn from the fact that the Israelites gathered up and carried the broken tablets with them on their journey? The myth of the two tablets suggests that mistakes and even failures are a natural, inevitable part of development. In fact, failure is often a gateway through which we must pass in order to receive our greatest gifts. It was only after Israel’s greatest single act of folly—namely, worshiping the golden calf—that they were able to truly receive and hold on to the gift of Torah, or spiritual illumination. Sometimes we only learn to appreciate life’s gifts after we have lost them. If, however, we are lucky enough to be given a second chance, with the wisdom we have acquired through our experience of failure, we learn how to cherish and hold on to what we are given. The first tablets of Sinai did not endure, say certain Biblical commentators, because the Israelites had not developed sufficiently strong inner vessels to hold on to their powerful light. The first revelation at Sinai, given as a gift of divine grace, was simply not sustainable. Ultimately, the Israelites had to do the inner work of repentance to strengthen their own immature vessels. This inner work, referred to in the Kabbalah as itoruta dile’tata, arousal from below, enabled them to earn, through their own efforts, what was initially given as a gift of divine grace, what the Rabbis call itoruta dile’eila, an arousal from above. A contemporary parallel can be drawn from the fact that people cannot make constructive use of insights and early memories retrieved in therapy unless they have adequate internal psychic structure. Without the necessary psychological capacities, momentary insights are often forgotten or misunderstood. In fact, when the ego is not strong enough to bear certain psychic contents, their availability to memory can be more harmful than useful. The two revelations at Sinai can also be seen as symbolizing the inevitable stages we go through in our spiritual development. The first tablets, like the initial visions we have for our lives, frequently shatter, especially when they are based on naïvely idealistic assumptions. Our first marriages or first careers may fail to live up to their initial promise. We may join communities or follow spiritual teachers and paths that disappoint or even betray us. Our very conceptions of God and our assumptions about the meaning of faith may shatter as we bump up against the morally complex and often contradictory aspects of the real world. Yet, if we learn from our mistakes and find ways to pick up the broken pieces of shattered dreams, we can go on to re-create our lives out of the rubble of our initial failures. And ultimately, we become wiser and more complex as our youthful ideals are replaced by more realistic and sustainable ones. As we move through the life cycle, we will continually embody and disembody life structures. We will shed old skins and grow new ones. The first “vessels” or “life structures,” we embody, by necessity, must shatter in order to make room for the continual growth of the self. If the two sets of tablets represent developmental stages we go through in our spiritual and emotional development, the first tablets correspond to our youthful dreams and ideals. Not having been modified by “reality,” they are often not sustainable precisely because of their purity and idealism. The second tablets represent our more mature visions and dreams, which perhaps are not as lofty as our youthful visions and dreams but are more viable. The myth of the broken tablets teaches us that it is important to hold on to the beauty and essence of dreams we once held dear, for our initial visions contain the seed of our purest essence. Gathering up the broken pieces suggests that we must salvage the essential elements of our youthful dreams and ideals and carry them forward on our journeys so that we can find a way to realize them in a more grounded fashion. For ultimately the whole and the broken live side by side in us all, as our broken dreams and shattered visions exist alongside our actual lives. In addition to representing the stages we go through in spiritual development, the myth of the two tablets also serves as a paradigm for the stages we go through in our intimate love relationships. Like the first “big bang” of Sinai, first awakenings of love, human or divine, are often so powerful that they knock us off our feet. In the magical intoxication of new love, our usual boundaries and defenses are temporarily taken down, and we experience an expanded sense of self. But as time passes, we begin to take the “miracle” of love for granted. This is typically when our autonomy needs reassert themselves, along with our age-old defense mechanisms. Our early “romantic idealizations” of our partner are dislodged by reality and ideally are replaced by more integrated and realistic images of him or her. No longer seen as quite so perfect, partners then have to work at creating an enduring relationship that takes each other’s strengths and weaknesses into account. In spiritual practice as in romantic love, our motivation is often strongest during the initial honeymoon phase. But over time, the excitement and “high” generated by our spiritual awakening tend to dim, and boredom and habit tend to set in. The initial magic we may have experienced tends to pass. This is when the real challenge begins and we have to work at sustaining our commitment to a spiritual practice. As the first stage of romantic love must inevitably yield to a more integrated and grounded relationship, our spiritual development begins to deepen when we commit ourselves to the difficult work of the everyday—of listening for the hidden voice of the divine in all the mundane aspects of everyday living. What we first get as a gift of divine grace must later be earned through the hard daily work of committed practice. The first big bang of Sinai, in all its grandeur, could not endure. Though far less dramatic than the first revelation, it was the second revelation that endured. Like Elijah’s vision at the same mountain centuries later (I Kings 19:17), the second tablets were revealed through the more modest “still, small voice” of the divine rather than the deafening and blinding blasts of thunder and lightning—the kolay kolot (the mother of all voices) that characterized the first revelation. “Nothing is more beautiful than modesty,” says the midrash about the second revelation, for ultimately, it was the second revelation that inscribed itself not just upon the tablets but also upon the hearts of the Israelites.