This week we read the infamous story of the golden calf. Moses is on the mountain with God, inscribing the tablets with the law and the children of Israel are left to fend for themselves. During the time Moses is gone, they construct an idol of gold which they proceed to worship with great fervor. When Moses returns from the mountain, he discovers the Israelites dancing and praying to a god made of gold. In his anger and frustration, Moses throws the tablets to the ground and smashes them into pieces.
Moses then returns to the mountain and with God, creates a second set of tablets. But what was the fate of the broken tablets Moses brought down from the mountain? What do the Israelites do with them? They do not throw them away, they do not discard them, rather, they take them and place them inside the ark with the new tablets. The broken, shattered pieces sit there, beside the ones which are whole, forever a reminder of the incident of the golden calf. A physical memory of their transgressions, an ever-present symbol of what they did wrong.
If that were where it ended, it would lead to an extremely problematic story, for there would be nothing to learn from it other than the continual reminder of a stain and blot on the people’s record. I believe that there is a further power in this story, more to the placement of the broken pieces than merely reinforcing the negative message of the incident. I think it is a reminder not only of the tablet’s shattering and brokenness but ours as well. They tell us that we are all flawed, we are human, we are broken, we struggle and suffer, we have pain and hurt, and sometimes we act from places which are far from noble. We are not perfect, we make mistakes, we get it wrong and that is ok, because that is what it means to be human. In so many instances where people do not accept responsibility for their behavior, I think it is because we are not supposed to show the flawed side of who we are, we are supposed to be perfect, to never make a mistake, never get it wrong. But that is not the message of Judaism, that is not the message of our parasha. The broken tablets sit there in the ark, beside the perfect ones, to acknowledge the brokenness of us all. To say, it is all right to get it wrong, it is ok to acknowledge our frailty and our humanness, and it is only when we do that, that we can grow and become who we are truly going to be in the world.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio