Ki Tissa: Breaking God’s Tablets? Way To Go, Moses! by Rabbi Jessica Fisher

“Sometimes rupture is necessary and holy. Sometimes disruption is an essential spiritual practice.”

In parashat Ki Tissa, we encounter one of the pivotal moments of tension in the Torah. After spending forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, Moses descends, carrying the gift of God’s words on two tablets. As he gets closer to his reunion with the Israelites, he realizes they have constructed an idol and are gathered to worship this golden calf. In his anger, he throws down the tablets, destroying the tangible evidence of God’s relationship with this difficult nation.

After some negotiating on their behalf by Moses, God calls Moses back up the mountain to repeat the process. At one point, discussing the first set, God refers to them as the tablets “which you broke, asher shibarta.” (Exodus 34:1)

We may want to read these words as a critique of Moses, but Reish Lakish, a former rogue turned famous sage, interprets the comment differently. He says that the word “asher” alludes to the phrase “yasher koach she-shibarta,” meaning, “may your strength be true” or “kudos” (Shabbat 87a). In other words, Reish Lakish believes God is praising, not critiquing, Moses for smashing the tablets.
It may seem counterintuitive for God to endorse the destruction of these sacred objects, but Reish Lakish teaches us something crucial here: sometimes rupture is necessary and holy. Sometimes disruption is an essential spiritual practice.

Although the drama of Moses shattering tablets as he returns from his sacred encounter is unique, shemitah and the concept of a pause in productivity every seven years is decidedly countercultural and disruptive. While we easily pronounce the necessity of self-care, our world has not yet found a way to create sustainable or equitable patterns of working and living.

Yet, taking a cue from Reish Lakish, if we find ways to apply shemitah– ways that dignify all workers and allow for true rest– we may hear the echoes of God saying, “yasher koach she-shibarta”– “I am so proud of you for breaking the mold.” Just as we rest on Shabbat to remember God’s role in Creation and relationship with the Jewish people, so, too, can we mark the shemitah year as a reminder of the holy necessity of rupture and rest.

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Rabbi Jessica Fisher serves as one of the rabbis at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle.

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