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WHY TWO TABLETS?

WHY TWO TABLETS?

Friday, 31 July, 2015 - 12:12 pm

One night, while on duty, a security guard dreamed that the plane on which his boss was supposed to fly the following day was going to crash. When he woke, he immediately called his boss at home and warned him. Insanely enough, the boss listened and cancelled his trip.

The next day, as the guard had predicted, the plane crashed. The relieved boss called the young man to his office and gave him a reward—and then fired him. The man asked his boss for an explanation; he had just saved his life! The boss replied, “You were sleeping on the job.”

The Ten Commandments—whose story is told in this week's portion of Va'etchanan—are the Crown Jewels of Judaism. They are all-encompassing, including within them all of the 613 Mitzvot in the Torah; unequaled in their simplicity, comprehensiveness and solemnity. They constitute the basis of civilization and human advancement.

Yet this ultimate declaration of Judaism was engraved on two tablets of stone. Is this not anti-climactic? One would think that such an unparalleled charge to the Jewish people would be transmitted via a more impressive medium. The Sanctuary was constructed of the most dazzling jewels and fabrics. Even the Ark, which contained the two Tablets, was made of lavish cedar wood. Yet what they contained inside—the Divine Ten Commandments—were just two stones!

The answer to this riddle is essential to our understanding of Judaism. While wood is a symbol of development, coming from a growing tree, stone remains fixed, permanent and impenetrable. The Ten Commandments, representing all of the Torah laws, are “stone”—for their value, truth, authenticity, and importance remain eternally and timelessly relevant. With all of the extreme fluctuations of society over three millennia, the relevance and timeliness and the power of Torah and Mitzvot remain the same. Furthermore, those who hold on to the Torah, those who turn themselves into “arks,” who “carry” the tablets, they are like wood and continue to grow, develop and actualize themselves as a result of what they are carrying.

There is a strange Midrash regarding the origins of the Ten Commandments. These were not just two plain stones; these rocks were featured earlier in history—once in Genesis and once in Exodus.


In Genesis, we read how our father Jacob left his home in Beer Sheba, and rested his head on stones one night. The Rabbis in the Talmud focus on an apparent grammatical inconsistency in this portion of the story.

When Jacob journeys from Beer Sheba to Haran, stopping on the way to rest for the night, the Torah tells us, “He took from the stones of the place, arranged them around his head, and lay down to rest.”

When he awakes the next morning, we read something different: “Jacob arose early in the morning and took the stone he placed around his head and set it up as a pillar.”

First we read of “stones,” in the plural; then we read of “the stone,” in the singular. Which was it? Did Jacob use a single stone or did he employ many stones?

The Talmud explains that Jacob indeed took several stones. The stones began quarreling, each one saying, “Upon me shall this righteous person rest his head.” So G-d combined them all into one stone, and the quarreling ceased. Hence, when Jacob awoke, we read, he “took the stone” in the singular, since all the stones became one.

The Midrash says that the stones quarrelling that night became the Two Tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were engraved.

But what is the connection between the fighting stones and the Ten Commandments?

There is a profound message here. If we examine the Ten Commandments engraved on the two stones, we notice something fascinating: The first five Mitzvot, on the first stone, deal primarily with man’s relationship with the Creator; the second set of five Mitzvot, on the second stone, deal with relations between people:

1. I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of slavery in Egypt. 
2. You shall have no other gods but me. 
3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your G-d. 
4. You shall remember and keep the Shabbat day holy. 
5. Honor your father and mother.  
6. You shall not murder. 
7. You shall not commit adultery. 
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against thy neighbour. 
10. You shall not covet.

We can now appreciate the allegorical message conveyed in the “fight” between the stones about where Jacob would place his head.


Jacob was travelling to his wedding, after which he would build the first Jewish family. This journey was a defining point for Jewish destiny. During his travels, the two stones Jacob chose—representing the two tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments—disputed with each other: Who is more prominent? Each stone insisted that the main focus and concentration of righteous individuals must be on its tablet. The stone containing the first five Mitzvot proclaimed: I must be the primary focus of the Jewish moral and holy life. I am the most vital in the Jewish experience! The other tablet argued: No! I am the key. What it primarily means to be a Jew is to be kind, honest, and socially concerned, to be a mentch! 
If someone is able to serve G-d—pray fervently, eat kosher, observe all the festivals—but nevertheless doesn't act kindly to others, then that is dysfunctional religion. If you really love G-d, how can you mistreat His creations?

The opposite view, that I will be good without G-d, is also an error. For social kindness to be enduring under all conditions, it must be based on a moral sense of justice coming from a Creator beyond social convention, and one's personal inclinations.

G-d took the two stones and turned them into one stone. Jacob needed to discover that the two rocks were not really two; they were in truth inseparable. These realities may appear to be two distinct ones, but in essence they are one. One cannot be without the other. If you really love and respect G-d, then you respect and love every human being created in G-d’s image, and you love every Jew who is G-d’s child. You don’t love me and hate my children even if you disagree with them. If you really believe in G-d then you know that G-d wants you to be ethical, kind, and sensitive.

Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik studied alongside one of the leading secular German moral ethicists prior to World War II. With the rise of the Nazis, he saw his colleague modify his arguments 180 degrees to justify the persecution of the “racially inferior”—in order to protect his position at the university. The Nazi era proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that “reason alone cannot be counted on to be reasonable, because reason can rationalize.” The first tablet of commandments, between man and G-d, is necessary to provide an anchor for the second set, between man and man.

The Nazis prove what happens when you ignore the first tablet. Hamas and Islamic extremism proves what happens when you ignore the second tablet. The enemies of the Jews hate us not for any reason; theirs is an essential hatred directed to the Jewish core. The truth is that the Jews protesting for Hamas would be the first ones killed by Hamas. The Torah of peace and love demands of us to stand up to our enemies because of our love for innocent life and justice.

From the two—now unified—stones of Jacob, the two tablets with the Ten Commandments were made. Both were given by the same G-d, at the same moment, to demonstrate their absolute oneness.

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

 

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