Rashbam: Them’s the Breaks (Ki Tisa)

Marc Chagall, Moses Breaks Tablets of Law
Marc Chagall, Moses Breaks Tablets of Law

Ki Tisa contains drama aplenty. Moses, on the mountaintop receiving Torah from God, makes his way back down to the people with tablets in hand, only to discover they have made a golden calf to replace him and/or God. What comes next has stoked the imagination of many interpreters over the ages.

“As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 32:19).

The crucial question: How could Moses, the great and humble leader and man of God, destroy God’s own writing?! Surely his anger is no excuse for such a devastating act!

Rashi, based on the Talmud (Shabbat 87a), comments: [Moses] said: “What is the law regarding the Paschal lamb which is only one of the commandments? The Torah states: “No estranged one shall eat of it” (Exodus 12:43). “But the whole Torah is here [written on the tablets] and all the Israelites are apostates, can I possibly give [the Torah] to them?!”

In other words, Rashi sees Moses action here as deriving not so much from anger but from a recognition that the people are no longer worthy of the Torah as represented by the tablets. The tablets’ destruction merely flows from the Israelite’s idolatrous endeavor.

Rashbam takes a different approach (naturally).

“He threw the tablets from his hands…” When Moses saw the calf, his strength waned and he no longer had enough strength [to hold on to the tablets.] So he threw the tablets down, a small distance away from him – in the same manner that any person would throw down an item that is too heavy – so that when they fell down, they would not land on his feet and injure him. I found this interpretation in Pirqe de-rabbi eli’ezer, and it is the true plain meaning of Scripture. (translation Martin Lockshin)

Unlike Rashi, who finds a kosher motivation for Moses to break the tablets, Rashbam goes further in telling us that Moses intended no harm to them. Rather, his waning strength meant he had no choice but to let them drop, and by throwing them all he did was save his own feet. No one wants large rock falling on tender toes, no matter how divine the words etched in them may be.

But as Martin Lockshin points out, the midrash that Rashbam cites as “the true plain meaning of Scripture” has more mystery than he includes in his citation. Here’s the full text of the midrash (Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer 45:8):

Moses took the tablets and he descended, and the tablets carried their own weight and Moses with them; but when they beheld the calf and the dances, the writing fled from off the tables, and they became heavy in his hands, and Moses was not able to carry himself and the tablets, and he cast them from his hand, and they were broken beneath the mount, as it is said, “He became enraged; and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Ex. 32:19).

While I personally love this midrash as is, personifying the tablets as a way of understanding why Moses needed to break them (they were too heavy without the divine letters on them), I also appreciate how Rashbam manages to read such a mystical text and derive the plain-sense kernel of Moses’ weakness from it.

Perhaps in a way, each of these comments reflects the weakness of Moses as a leader in this moment. He is reliant on Torah – whether as a prooftext for destruction, as Rashi has it, or to literally carry his weight, as PRE suggests. Rashbam alone directly declares that Moses has weakened.

We too may carry gifts that suddenly turn into burdens. Will we be bold enough to ask for help, or to simply acknowledge our own weakness and prevent further damage to ourselves?

For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.