09 Aug Parshat Eikev: Moses and Second Set of Tablets
As discussed two weeks ago in Parshat D’varim the Book of Deuteronomy is a second rendition of narrative and legal traditions from the previous books of the Torah. In this week’s reading, Moses re-tells of the episode on Mt. Sinai when God directs him to fashion a new set of tablets after he broke the first pair in anger over the sin of the Golden Calf. While the stones would be hewn by human hands, the words of the Covenant would be inscribed by God. This much is clear from the account here in Deuteronomy 10 as well as in Exodus 34.
However, the story as told here in our Torah portion has God also commanding Moses to make an ark of wood before returning to the mountain top. And so, after the new tablets are inscribed by God, Moses relates:
Then I left and went down from the mountain, and deposited the tablets in the ark that I had made, where they still are, as the Lord had commanded me. (Deut. 10:5)
In the Book of Exodus, the ark, as part of the entire Tabernacle project, is not built until later by Bezalel. But Deuteronomy, in playing down the importance of the priestly traditions of the Torah, makes no mention of Bezalel or the Tabernacle.
The story, as told here in Deuteronomy, seems to state that this set of tablets was intended to last and therefore needed to be put into a protective container.
The Gross Family Collection has many pieces that depict this scene, though I have not yet found one of Moses depositing the tablets in the ark.
Moses is depicted in different ways holding the tablets:
Perhaps the most typical of these depicts some version of Moses (as in the image below, with Moses on the right) holding the tablets close to his chest. In this particular image (below on the right), in what looks like a protective gesture:
Passover Haggadah, Amsterdam 1695, Gross Family Collection, Tel-Aviv
Or here, in this unique textile, a bit precariously:
Wedding and Circumcision Embroidery, Tangier, Morocco, 1854, Gross Family Collection, Tel-Aviv
And again, in a different pose, with Moses standing behind the tablets:
Ir Miklat, Germany, 1690, Gross Family Collection, Tel-Aviv
We also find many examples in which the tablets are resting on the ground:
Hebrew and Aramaic Dictionary, Amsterdam, 1655, Gross Family Collection, Tel-Aviv
Torah Binder (Wimpel), France, 1886, Gross Family Collection, Tel-Aviv
With regard to these last two images that depict the tablets as rather large, one might get the feeling that they were a heavy burden for the aging prophet.
And yet one more pose, this time with Moses easily carrying the tablets as one would a notebook:
Spanish Bible, Amsterdam, 1646, Gross Family Collection, Tel-Aviv
These interpretations based on the images above – whether Moses is displaying, protecting, being burdened by or easily walking with the tablets – are mine alone. I’m not saying that these are the original intentions of the artists. But they do give me something to think about:
How was the Moses who threw down the first set of tablets in anger different from the Moses who was commanded by God to create a new set?
How did Moses use these tablets in his interaction with the people?
And how do we see ourselves and our relationship to the Jewish tradition, of which the tablets are a symbol?
Are we protecting our tradition, or are we more interested in showing it to others?
Do we carry it easily and keep it handy, or is it a burden for us?