“Rabbi Yochanan said: [the Messiah] Ben David will come only in a generation that is [either] entirely virtuous or entirely guilty” (Sanhedrin 98a). If you are at the bottom, what can you do?
I have often written about the most fateful day in my life, January 10, 1966. I really did not expect that day to be remarkable, because I was in complete despair. We had been married several years, and it seemed as if there was no way of saving the marriage. I was in graduate school and I couldn’t concentrate on my work because of my personal problems. I awoke in the middle of the night and saw a chasm open before me, a black hole which was about to suck me into a chaos of eternal oblivion. There was no way out.
The world is in such a mess! How can the Messiah emerge from this disaster? If you start to enumerate the problems, you will run out of ink and paper before you finish.
And then this crazy thought came to me: “Could there be a G-d?
“Hold on! How can I, a ‘normal’ American boy, believe in a Being I can’t see? How absurd! Am I a Medieval monk?
“No! Wait! Maybe I have it wrong! I am completely hopeless. My life is falling apart! I am falling off the cliff!
“I need You! Help me! Help me! Help me! I believe in You! G-d, save me!”
And that is how I came to know that G-d is Real! I needed a brush with death to find Life. “Although I walk in the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23).
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses performs perhaps the most incredible act of courage in history. He takes the Tablets written with the Finger of G-d, throws them down and smashes them. For this action, Moses is later commended by the Master of the Universe.“As it was taught in a Baraisa: Moses did three things on his own understanding and the Holy One agreed with him … [one of which was that] he broke the Tablets” (Shabbos 87a).
When our ancestors understood the consequences of having worshipped the Golden Calf, they were plunged into despair. Their crowns were stripped from their heads (Exodus 33:5-6). Their glory was thrown in the dust and all – it seemed – was lost. Was there any way out of this catastrophe?
And then, Moses returned to G-d and pleaded for the Jewish People. This is how G-d answered: “Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones, and I shall inscribe on the Tablets the words that were on the first Tablets, which you shattered” (Exodus 33:18). The new Tablets were indeed “like” the first ones, but they were not identical. There was a crucial difference, because this time Moses had to carve the stone himself!
This, my friends, is the story of our entire life, the story of mankind outside the Garden of Eden and the Jewish People in exile. We need to carve out those Tablets. There is a route back to paradise, but we have to work to get there. “Rabbi Yitzchak said … ‘If someone tells you … I have not labored [in Torah] yet I have succeeded, do not believe him. [If, however, he tells you] I have labored and I have succeeded, you may believe him” (Megillah 6b). Torah is acquired only through intensive labor. Through “zaias apecha … the sweat of our brow,” we can return to favor in the eyes of G-d. We can find life after death. We can rise from the ashes. We can come back from the Black Hole.
It is of course no accident that Moses was instructed to carve the second Tablets right after G-d tells him,“I shall make all My goodness pass before you and I shall call out the Name ‘G-d’ before you … I shall show favor when I choose to show favor and I shall show mercy when I choose to show mercy” (Exodus 33:19).
In order to survive, we have to know G-d exists. We have to know the Reality of a Perfect and All-Powerful Being, and then we can rise from the dead. Similarly, the blessing“Techias Hamaisim” directly follows the blessing “Avos” in the Standing Prayer. The Patriarchs, who lived in a pagan world, demonstrated that Life comes from death. “Min ha maitzar … from the straits did I call upon G-d; He answered me with expansiveness” (Psalm 118).
One cannot arise to life unless one has walked “through the valley of death.” In this week’s Torah portion, our ancestors learned not to despair even after terrible mistakes; they showed us the route to future redemption. “G-d is close to the brokenhearted; those crushed in spirit, He saves” Psalm 34.) The same lesson was taught in Egypt: unless you go down to the forty-ninth level of impurity there is no way you are going to get out of Egypt.
Those who think they can make it on their own are doomed. But if we know the Master of the Universe is with us, then we will be able to carve out the Second Tablets.
Why is the Torah portionKi Sisa juxtaposed with Parah Aduma - the Red Heifer? Parah Aduma is our way back from being buried in impurity. When we slaughter our slavery to desires, then we are released to return to our Creator. The Jewish People had to burn the Calf and eat the ashes in order to free themselves.
This is our life: to carve out those stones! No one can do it for us! It requires exertion, sweat and tears, but, in the end, G-d will write upon those stones! He will bless our efforts, and those stones will be placed inside the Holy Ark! Then G-d will send His Presence. From the rebuilt Holy Temple will emerge a light which will save the universe.
May we see it soon in our days! “U’ma’asai yadainu … May [G-d] establish the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90)