Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tissa 5762/ March 2, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Ki Tissa 5762/ March 2, 2002


Between the First Tablets and The Second


Prof. Emeritus Meir Simhah Feldblum

Naftal-Yaffe Department of Talmud



We read in this week’s parasha (Ex. 34:1), “The Lord said to Moses:  ‘Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered,” and later we read, “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: … abounding in kindness and faithfulness…”(v. 6), and  “And the Lord said to Moses:  Write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel” (v. 27).

The first tablets were given in a very impressive ceremony of Revelation, an emotional super-human and elevating experience; and the greater the elevation, the harder the fall.  The sin of the golden calf is interesting, for the Sages perceived a certain element of coercion in giving the Torah, notwithstanding the famous assertion of consent, “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!” (Ex. 24:3).  Regarding the verse, “and they took their places at the foot of the mountain” (Ex. 19:17), the Sages noted: 

From this we learn that the Holy One, blessed be He, forced the mountain on them like a  large basin, saying, “If you accept the Torah, fine; and if not, here you shall find your graves.”… Rabba said:   Nevertheless, the entire generation accepted the Torah in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written, “the Jews undertook and irrevocably obligated themselves” – they undertook to observe that to which they had already been obligated. (Shabbat 88a)

On the one hand the element of coercion in this legend can be understood as reflecting the fact that the Sages understood that the Jewish people could only exist if they lived within the context of the Torah and its commandments.  On the other hand, it is understandable that the element of coercion is included here in order to teach us that the Israelites accepted the Torah with insufficient knowledge and experience.  A people drunk with their new freedom from bondage, they had experienced wondrous miracles and were willing to accept the Torah even though they were not sufficiently developed as individuals and a nation. They lacked the experience of cooperation in the context of an independent political entity of their own that had to cope with enemies from within and without.  The generation of the exodus from Egypt was still at the base of the mountain, and unable to see clearly the horizon of the land of Israel and of  Jewish history.   Indeed, their very first test – the absence of their leader Moses for slightly longer than they had expected – caused them to stumble and fall.

By the time the second Tablets are given, we see a change of approach.  The second time was preceded by moral, educational and even philosophical preparation.   Moses sought to learn and teach:   pray le me know Your ways, that I may know You” (Ex. 33:13); and the Lord revealed His qualities to him, the quality of being compassionate and gracious, kind and faithful; and He taught him the great principle that we must emulate the Lord’s ways:   just as G-d is compassionate, so we are to be compassionate.  This time good qualities were the preparation for receiving the Torah.   Moreover, the Lord commanded Moses, “Write down [ktov lekha] … for in accordance [Heb. al pi] with these commandments…”  The Sages interpreted this injunction to “write down” as a reference to the Oral Torah [a play on words:  Torah she-be-al pe] that was given along with the written Torah.   In addition to interpretations, the Oral Torah included rules, general principles and exegetical methods by which the corpus of the Halakhah was created and refined (see Maimonides’ preface to his commentary on the Mishnah and Hilkhot Mamrim, ch. 1).

According to Rabba (Tractate Shabbat, loc. sit.), acceptance of the Torah “in the time of Ahasuerus” means full compliance about a thousand years after it was initially given, after the land of Israel had been conquered and divided among the Israelite tribes, after the attempt at rule by the Judges, after the attempt at a monarchy in various forms, both in Judah and the land of the Ten Tribes, after the Temple had been built and later destroyed, after the return to Zion and construction of the Second Temple and the danger of annihilation facing the Jews in exile and in Israel in the time of Haman.  Only then did the Jews reach the stage of being able to “undertake and irrevocably obligate themselves,” and only then was the Torah fully accepted – in the time of the Great Assembly.  The secret of the Torah’s acceptance and successful rooting in the people is expressed in a few succinct phrases at the beginning of Tractate Avot:   They said three things:   Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence round the Law.”   Herein lies the success of accepting the Torah:   including it in the context of the Oral Law.  By doing so the Torah became the heritage of the entire people.  The sacred Scriptures incorporated prophetic, wisdom and ethical literature, and the religious laws of the Torah were put into the setting of rulings, edicts and customs.  Rabbi Jose’s remark, “Ezra would have been worthy of giving the Torah to Israel through his hands, had not Moses preceded him” (Sanhedrin 21b), echoes an historic event.  Ezra – a central and motivating force in the Great Assembly--accomplished the first stage of complete acceptance of the Torah.   Maimonides describes the process of the crystallization of the Torah from Adam to Moses (Hilkhot Melakhim 9.1) in the following terms:

Six commandments were given to Adam, … another one was added to Noah,… Then in addition to these commandments, Abraham was commanded regarding circumcision, … and Isaac set aside, … and Jacob added, … and in Egypt Amram was given more commandments, until our Teacher Moses came and completed the Torah.

In the light of what we have said above, we must add one more stage to Maimonides’ seven personalities:   until the time of Ezra and the Great Assembly, who made the Torah and the people ready one for the other, educating the people and establishing a framework for the Written Torah within the system of principles of the Oral Torah.

Acceptance of the Torah is an ongoing process in every generation.   The challenge this poses has become especially great in recent times.  Momentous changes have occurred in our society in terms of technology and changing attitudes in the world in general and the life of the individual in particular.  All this has been accompanied by the beginning of Redemption after more than two thousand years of bondage.  Hence we are faced by a special challenge:  to renew the creative ways of the Oral Law and run our lives in accordance with the qualities, commandments and teachings of the Lawgiver.

The weekly Torah portion is distributed with the assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science.