The difference between them was that the sanctity of Mount Sinai was momentary, while that of the tabernacle was permanent (at least until the Temple was built centuries later). The revelation at Sinai was an “awakening from above.” It was initiated by G-d. So overwhelming was it that the people said to Moses, “Let G-d not speak to us any more, for if He does, we will die” (20:16). By contrast, the tabernacle involved human labor. The Israelites made it; they prepared the structured space the Divine presence would eventually fill. Forty days after the revelation at Sinai, the Israelites made the Golden Calf. But after constructing the sanctuary they made no more idols – at least until they entered the land. That is the difference between the things that are done for us and the things we have a share in doing ourselves. The former change us for a moment, the latter for a lifetime.
There was one other difference between the first tablets and the second. According to tradition, when Moses was given the first tablets, he was given only Torah shebiktav, the Written Torah. At the time of the second tablets, he was given Torah she-be’al peh, the Oral Torah, as well: “Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘G-d made a covenant with Israel only for the sake of the Oral Law,’ as it says: “For by the mouth of these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (34:27).
The difference between the Written and Oral Torahs is profound. The first is the word of G-d, with no human contribution. The second is a partnership: the word of G-d as interpreted by the mind of man. The following are two of several remarkable passages to this effect:
Rabbi Judah said in the name of Shmuel: Three thousand traditional laws were forgotten during the period of mourning for Moses. They said to Joshua: “Ask” (through ruach hakodesh, the holy spirit). Joshua replied, “It is not in heaven.” They said to Samuel, “Ask.” He replied, “These are the commandments – implying that no prophet has the right to introduce anything new” (Temurah 16a). “If a thousand prophets of the stature of Elijah and Elisha were to give one interpretation of a verse, and one thousand and one sages were to offer a different interpretation, we follow the majority: the law is in accordance with the thousand-and-one sages and not in accordance with the thousand prophets” (Maimonides, Commentary to the Mishneh, Introduction).
Any attempt to reduce the Oral Torah to the Written – by relying on prophecy or Divine communication – mistakes its essential nature as the collaborative partnership between G-d and man, where revelation meets interpretation. Thus, the difference between the two precisely mirrors that between the first and second tablets. The first were Divine, the second the result of Divine-human collaboration. This helps us understand a glorious ambiguity. The Torah says that at Sinai the Israelites heard a “great voice.” Two contradictory interpretations are given about this. One reads it as “a great voice that was never heard again,” the other as “a great voice that did not cease” (i.e. a voice that was always heard again). Both are true. The first refers to the Written Torah, given once and never to be repeated. The second applies to the Oral Torah, whose study has never ceased.
It also helps us understand why it was only after the second tablets, not the first, that “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of Testimony in his hands, he was unaware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with G-d” (34:29). Receiving the first tablets, Moses was passive. Therefore, nothing in him changed. For the second, he was active. He had a share in the making. He carved the stone on which the words were to be engraved. That is why he became a different person. His face shone.
In Judaism, the natural is greater than the supernatural in the sense that an “awakening from below” is more powerful in transforming us, and longer-lasting in its effects, than is an “awakening from above.” That was why the second tablets survived intact while the first did not. Divine intervention changes nature, but it is human initiative – our approach to G-d – that changes us.