On Falling Apart
Forty days ago, according to our tradition, Moshe descended Mount Sinai carrying two tablets that contained the word of G!d. He saw us dancing around a Golden Calf that we had fashioned while he was up on the mountain communing with the Divine. So he smashed the tablets in fiery anger.
He then proceeded back up the mountain, and forty days later, today, on Yom Kippur, he descended the mountain a second time, with a second set of tablets.
It is not just a coincidence that we received the second tablets today, on Yom Kippur. There must be something in this story that can help us understand the Yom Kippur practice of teshuva — returning to ourselves.
There is a surface explanation: That G!d was angry at us for worshiping the Golden Calf, and that by giving us a second set of tablets, he signaled his forgiveness. A lot of rabbis use this to teach that so too can we be forgiven for our sins on Yom Kippur.
Personally, I don’t find that explanation helpful in deepening my connection to Yom Kippur. To be honest, I’ve always struggled with this concept of a G!d who gets angry when we slight them or offend them; it makes G!d seem so petty.
So let’s take a deeper look. What is the nature of the second tablets? How do they differ from the first tablets? The first ones, according to a verse in Shemot (Exodus):
מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים הֵ֑מָּה
They were the work of G!d
וְהַמִּכְתָּ֗ב מִכְתַּ֤ב אֱלֹהִים֙
and the writing was the writing of G!d
So the first set of tablets were solely written by G!d, handed to us. It was a one-way transmission. Here is how to live a good life. You’re welcome.
Does this feel familiar to you? Have you received a one-way transmission about how to live your life? What were the first tablets you received? I invite you to close your eyes or soften your gaze, and take a deep breath, and consider:
What messages were you handed by your parents or grandparents, your teachers, your community, society around you? Think about the messages you received growing up about what success looks like, about what a good life looks like. Perhaps you were given messages about money, about the right kind of career, or how your job should be prioritized relative to other parts of your life.
Perhaps you were told that you needed a certain type of romantic relationship, that your family needed to look a certain way, that you needed to be with a certain kind of person, and all this on a certain timeline? Perhaps you received messages about your gender, that as someone who presented as a man or a woman you had to act a certain way.
Perhaps you even received messages about being a Jew — that good Jews do this and bad Jews do that.
The problem with these messages is that they are often one-way transmissions. They often say less about you and more about the person or society that gave them to you. And they rarely reflect your needs as an individual. Can you remember when you first realized that these messages don’t fit? When you realized: Hey, that is someone else’s dream. Those are not my priorities, that is not how I want to live my life. How did it feel when you realized that there were tablets you needed to smash?
Or maybe there was a time when life smashed those tablets for you, when the fantasy of what you thought life would look like shattered into a million pieces. For me, it was when my marriage of 12 years fell apart. I was devastated to lose my life partner, my lover, my best friend.
As I leaned into that pain and sadness, I realized I was also grieving the image of what my life was going to be. I thought I had it all locked in and could just enjoy the ride for the next few decades. And then, all of a sudden, that plan shattered. There was no script. No predetermined path I could follow. I was lost. And I was scared.
I don’t want to pretend that story has a happy ending. In many ways, that story is still being written. I still experience the grief of mourning my first tablets, the way I expected my life to be. But I am also realizing how much my last chapter was influenced by other people’s expectations of me. I am opening to the possibilities of being the author of my next chapter.
Perhaps it was that desire for agency that motivated us to create a Golden Calf. Perhaps it was our attempt at saying: Hey, we want to play an active role in crafting our spiritual lives. We want to co-create our relationship with you, G!d. We want this to be a two-way street.
When I worked in product design and we were creating products for diverse communities, we had this phrase, “No about us without us.” If you were going to be creating something for someone, make sure they have a role in shaping it. Maybe that’s what we were saying when we made the Golden Calf: Hey, no about us without us.
And it seems like G!d listened. When G!d saw what happened, G!d turned to Moshe and said,
וְנִצַּבְתָּ֥ לִ֛י שָׁ֖ם עַל־רֹ֥אשׁ הָהָֽר׃
Come join me on the top of the mountain.
פְּסׇל־לְךָ֛ שְׁנֵֽי־לֻחֹ֥ת אֲבָנִ֖ים כָּרִאשֹׁנִ֑ים וְכָתַבְתִּי֙ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת
You sculpt the two stones for the tablets and I will write on them. Let’s make this a collaborative process.
The oral tradition in Shemot Rabbah recounts that when Moshe expressed grief at the loss of the first tablets, the Divine said: Don’t be sad. The first tablets had only the Ten Commandments. These second tablets also contain Halacha, Midrash, and Agadah — the tools you can use to find yourself in the teachings.
Rabbi Yitzchack Arama, in 15th century Spain, wrote that in inviting us in as partners in creating the second tablets, G!d is admitting that it’s not reasonable to expect us to live fully in the idealized fantasy world of the Divine; we need a Torah grounded in the messy day-to-day realities of the human world.
It’s interesting that the word G!d used for sculpt is “Psol”, which is the same root as the word “Pesel,” which means idol. It’s actually pretty crazy that this is the word that G!d used to describe the vehicle for G!d’s most direct transmission to us. G!d understood why we made the Golden Calf: You need a pesel. You need something that you helped create. Come join me on the top of the mountain, and let’s do that together.
Rabbi Nahman of Beslov, the wild 19th century Jewish mystic, goes even further. He says the world “psol” comes from the word “psolet,” which means refuse, excess, the shavings you throw away when you’re carving something. In modern Hebrew, it actually means trash. In essence, what G!d is saying is: throw away the trash from those fantasies and projections that were given to you by others, that don’t fit for you. Sculpting is about cutting away to create something new. Sculpt the tablets yourself.
Today, Yom Kippur, is that day, the day that Moshe descended with the second tablets. So Yom Kippur is an invitation to step up and take agency over your own life. “Psol Lecha” — sculpt your second tablets, your second chapter. What tablets you’ve chosen to shatter? What tablets may have been shattered by others? What tablets might still need shattering? What would life look like on your own terms, not living someone else’s fantasy?
Yom Kippur is the only time in the year when the High Priest enters the Kodesh Kodeshim, the holiest part of the Temple. And in that Holy of Holies is the sacred Ark, from which the Divine speaks to us directly. Inside that ark are both sets of tablets: the broken shards of the first tablets, the initial ones given to us unilaterally by the Divine, and the full set of the second tablets, the ones we co-created with the Divine.
The reason we keep both of them, according to the mystics, is that the brokenness of the first tablets are just as important as the wholeness of the second tablets. The act of allowing ourselves to fall apart is a sacred act; and it is from that place of brokenness that the Divine speaks to us. As said by Reb Eliyahu deVidash, the 16th century Kabbalist: “In order for a person’s heart to serve as a home for the Shekhina, the Divine Presence, it must be a broken heart, a beaten heart. For the Shekhina only dwells in broken vessels.”
So my blessing for all of us is: May we have the courage to break the first tablets that were projected upon us by others; may we have the strength to embrace the sacred brokenness that comes after their shattering; and may we have the wisdom to sculpt our own tablets in true partnership with the Divine.