Framing the epic events of this week’s sedrah are two objects: the two sets of tablets – the first given before, and the second after, the sin of the Golden Calf. Of the first, we read:
“The tablets were the work of G-d; the writing was the writing of G-d, engraved on the tablets.”
These were perhaps the holiest objects in history: from beginning to end, the work of G-d. Yet within hours they lay shattered, broken by Moses when he saw the calf and the Israelites dancing around it.
The second tablets, brought down by Moses on the tenth of Tishrei, were the result of his prolonged plea to G-d to forgive the people. This is the historic event that lies behind Yom Kippur (tenth of Tishrei), the day marked in perpetuity as a time of favor, forgiveness and reconciliation between G-d and the Jewish people. The second tablets were different in one respect. They were not wholly the work of G-d:
“Carve out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.”
Hence the paradox: the first tablets, made by G-d, did not remain intact. The second tablets, the joint work of G-d and Moses, did. Surely the opposite should have been true: the greater the holiness, the more eternal. Why was the holier object broken while the less holy stayed whole? This is not, as it might seem, a question specific to the tablets. It is, in fact, a powerful example of a fundamental principle in Jewish spirituality.
The Jewish mystics distinguished between two types of Divine-human encounter. They called them “an awakening from above” and “an awakening from below.” The first is initiated by G-d, the second by mankind. An “awakening from above” is spectacular, supernatural, an event that bursts through the chains of causality that at other times bind the natural world. An “awakening from below” has no such grandeur. It is a gesture that is human – all too human.
Yet there is another difference between them, in the opposite direction. An “awakening from above” may change nature, but it does not, in and of itself, change human nature. In it, no human effort has been expended. Those to whom it happens are passive. While it lasts, it is overwhelming – but only while it lasts. Thereafter, people revert to what they were. An “awakening from below,” by contrast, leaves a permanent mark.
Because human beings have taken the initiative, something in them changes. Their horizons of possibility have been expanded. They now know they are capable of great things, and because they did so once, they are aware that they can do so again. An “awakening from above” temporarily transforms the external world; an “awakening from below” permanently transforms our internal world. The first changes the universe; the second changes us.
Two examples: Before and after the division of the Red Sea, the Israelites were confronted by enemies: before by the Egyptians, after by the Amalekites. The difference is total.
Before the Red Sea, the Israelites were commanded to do nothing:
“Stand still and you will see the deliverance G-d will bring you today … G-d will fight for you; you need only be still” (Exodus 14:13-14).
Facing the Amalekites, however, the Israelites themselves had to fight:
“Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose men and go out and fight the Amalekites” (17:9).
The first was an “awakening from above,” the second an “awakening from below.”
The difference was palpable. Within three days after the division of the Sea, the greatest of all miracles, the Israelites began complaining again (no water, no food). But after the war against the Amalekites, the Israelites never again complained when facing conflict (the sole exception – when the spies returned and the people lost heart – was when they relied on hearsay testimony, not on the immediate prospect of battle itself). The battles fought for us do not change us; the battles we fight, do.
The second example: Mount Sinai and the Tabernacle. The Torah speaks about these two revelations of “G-d’s glory” in almost identical terms:
“The glory of G-d settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day G-d called to Moses from within the cloud. Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of G-d filled the tabernacle.”
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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