If a Tree Falls In the Forest, Does It Make a Sound?

The story told in this week’s Torah portion- Ki Tissa– about the Israelites worshipping a golden calf is a fascinating one. The traditional take on the story is that the people committed an act of apostasy, an act that is judged as an especially egregious one by the Talmudic sages since it came so soon after a series of miracles performed on their behalf by God. The rabbis are quick to condemn the people for turning their backs on God when instead they should have shown that they had faith in God. A more modern approach to interpreting the story would question the actions of Aaron and Moses. To what extent were they responsible for what the Israelites did? Could it be argued that Aaron was too compliant, that he was all too willing to act on the demand to build an idol? Shouldn’t he have resisted, or at least stalled before giving in? Or could it be argued that Moses shares a portion of the blame for his people worshipping an idol. After all, he seemed to have no succession plan in place, nor did he prepare Aaron to take his place in the event of a long absence. Perhaps there are leadership lessons to be learned from this story.

The sages do comment extensively on the role played by Moses, not only in opening the door to the people’s apostasy but for smashing the two tablets by throwing them on the ground in anger. Indeed, we read in the text that Moses was hot tempered: 

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

Did he let his anger get the better of him? Was shattering the tablets an acceptable thing to do, especially for someone in a leadership position? Angrily smashing the two tablets, which had been written “with the finger of God,” would be similar to throwing a Torah scroll to the ground in anger. Could such an act ever be justified? Actually, some commentators do justify what Moses did, or at least they try to explain it. For example, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 43:1) asserts that Moses intentionally smashed the tablets to let his people off the hook of a severe punishment, reasoning that he would tell God that had they known the consequence of their actions they would not have worshipped an idol. Another Midrash (Tanhuma Ki Tissa 26) suggests that Moses was able to carry the two tablets because, having been inscribed by God, they possessed an aura of holiness. Once he saw the people dancing around an idol, the letters fell off the tablets and they became too heavy for Moses to hold them. While this interpretation doesn’t exactly sync with the storyline, it suggests that Moses didn’t really intend to smash the tablets.

One other interpretation is worth considering. Rabbi Meir Simcha Ha-Kohen (1843-1926, Latvia) suggests that Moses smashed the tablets intentionally, but not out of anger. He writes:

“He feared they would deify the tablets as they had done the calf. Had he brought them the tablets intact, they would have substituted them for the calf. It was the first tablets, which were the work of God, that were broken, not the tablets hewn by Moses, which remained whole, demonstrating that no holiness resides in any created thing other than that invested in it by Israel’s observance of the Torah…”

According to this sage, as he descended the mountain Moses realized that his people were likely to deify objects in their search for God. He realized that the tablets he was holding were literally crafted by God. So he made a bold decision to destroy them, knowing (or perhaps hoping) that he would be able to get a replacement set that he himself would craft.

It’s the last line in Rabbi Simcha’s commentary that captures my attention: “No holiness resides in any created thing other than that invested in it by Israel’s observance of the Torah.” In other words, the holiness of the tablets resided not in their having been crafted by God but in Israel’s willful embrace of their message. Moses didn’t want his people to gravitate toward objects because they seemed to be holy—they had seen enough of that in Egypt. Instead, he wanted his people to come to a place of holiness on their own. We might say, by extension, that there is nothing inherently holy within Judaism—no object or time is holy in and of itself. What makes an object or a period of time holy is how we relate to it and how we think and behave differently because we have encountered it.

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Put differently, if Shabbat comes around and nobody celebrates it, is it still Shabbat? Perhaps the answer lies in this week’s story of the Golden Calf.

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