The five books of Moses are divided into weekly portions. When we read each portion, we are not studying ancient history. This weekly study is nothing less than the story of our own as yet unfolding lives. Each year when we finish the cycle of Torah portions on the festival of Simchat Torah, reading the last parasha in the book of Deuteronomy, V’Zot HaBracha, we experience a re-start…immediately beginning the Torah anew that very day, starting to read from parashat B’reishith, the beginning of Genesis.
We never tire of this restart. It's an amazing experience. Each year we uncover more of the Torah's mysteries, delving ever deeper and deeper into its secrets. As we mature, we can see deeper, and our constantly-changing understanding and appreciation of the lessons of Torah helps us to serve G-d better, first and foremost, by helping us to become better people.
Yet this re-start is also elusive. The passage from Deuteronomy back to Genesis can seem jolting and disquieting. After all, we have been so thoroughly immersed in study throughout this cycle. The last four Torah portions in Deuteronomy alone having taken place on the day of Moshe's passing, after he reiterated his concern for the people of Israel so many times, and the pitfalls that lay in wait for them in the future. He spoke many times of the challenges they will constantly face, most of them, as a result of their own insubordination...and now, in B’reishith we are back at the beginning of creation, at the beginning of everything. This transition can leave us dazed.
Parashat V’Zot HaBracha is Moshe’s blessing to the Children of Israel. It is a prophetic vision in which he alludes to what will befall his cherished people. The beloved leader, who lived for his people and loved them so much, is about to take his leave of them. Before he departs this world he must leave them with his most powerful message. How shall he be remembered? What is the succinct statement of the sum total of his career, his life’s work on behalf of Israel?
The relationship that all of Israel had with Moses, who is universally acknowledged as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our master, our teacher, is unparalleled. The Torah itself testifies to the great compassion he possessed for his people, to the point of ultimate self-sacrifice, when following the debacle of the Golden Calf he said ‘And now if You would but forgive their sin! But if not, erase me now from Your book that You have written’ (Ex. 32:32). He was ready to die, to never have existed in the first place, in order to save his people. He was completely without ego, to the point where the Almighty Himself bears witness and states, ‘And Moshe was the humblest man upon the face of the earth’ (Num. 12:3).
This is the Moshe who brought his people out of Egypt. This is the Moshe who ascended to Mount Sinai and brought down the Torah, who on two separate occasions did not eat or drink for forty days, who faced down the spies and their wicked intentions against the Land, and Korach and his co-conspirators, and the kings of Ammon and Moab, and after all those adventures, all that travail, all that spiritual hope and longing and accomplishment, these last words of the Torah, the last verses of parashat V’Zot HaBracha, serve to sum up his life as he should be remembered by Israel. What should the nation remember about Moshe the most, the main thing he would like to be remembered for; what did he do for the people of Israel that will remain with them forever? That he delivered them from the house of bondage? That he ascended to Heaven and received the Torah?
The surprising answer can be found in the last verses of the Torah...
“Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom Hashem had known face to face, as evidenced by all the signs and wonders that Hashem sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and all his land,
…and by all the strong hand and awesome power that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel…”
The holy Rashi explains that the words ‘before the eyes of all Israel’ refer to Moshe’s inspiration to break the tablets before their eyes, as the verse states, ‘and I broke them before your eyes’ (9:17), and the Holy One, blessed be He, agreed with Moses that this was the right thing to do. (BT Shabbat 87:a). ’
The ultimate thing that Moshe did before the eyes of all of Israel was to break the tablets? This was the single most important thing he had done, and how he should be remembered?
This is certainly difficult to understand. And this question becomes even stronger when we begin to study the deep teachings of our sages regarding the difference between the first tablets and the second tablets.
Those original two tablets were written with the finger of God. They represent the potential for living on a much higher spiritual plane. According to our sages, if the original tablets would not have been broken, Israel would have remained on an exalted level of Torah knowledge. Our sages famously state that no one would forget anything they learned! The depth of the acquisition of Torah knowledge would have been anchored in such a deep way in their souls, that it would never be forgotten. But when Moshe descended and witnessed how Israel, under the influence and at the instigation of the mixed multitude, were reveling around the golden calf, the holy letters on the tablets, written by God Himself, flew off the tablets and back up to Heaven, and the stones became unbearably heavy in his hands…thus we read, “It happened as he drew near the camp and saw the calf and the dances, that Moshe’s anger flared up. He threw down the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain (32:19).”
Was Moses indeed angry? The verse certainly intimates that Moses’ action was caused by a fit of rage. However the simple reading of these words hides a great secret. Moshe did not break the tablets in a momentary act of anger. He did not lose his self-control, even for an instant. Rather, the breaking of the tablets was a calculated, well thought-out plan for the benefit of his beloved Israel. And G-d agreed with his plan. This was not a momentary loss of composure, but the opposite. It was a deed of unparalleled importance and indeed, as the Torah testifies in this last verse, ‘before the eyes of all Israel’…possibly the single most important thing that Moshe ever did, and that which he…and the Torah…wishes us to remember: for through this act, Moshe bequeathed to Israel the Divine ability to forget and begin anew, shedding off all previous knowledge and preconceived notions and ideas.
If the original tablets had not been broken things would have been different – higher, even – but not better. True, not a letter of Torah would have been forgotten; the potential for ultimate rectification would have been very great. But Moshe realized that such an expectation would not have been realistic. When he came down and saw the debauchery of the golden calf, he realized with great compassion and with deep insight, that things can’t be rushed. The accumulation of the knowledge and experience of life needs time. Knowledge can’t be forced. We need to fix ourselves a little at a time, a little bit every year…and all the things that transpire in the life of a human being, all the things we go through, are all necessary stations along our road to awareness. Disappointments along the way are inevitable but a person must never become despondent. Every time one falls he must get up. If we would obsess about past mistakes and failures, we would be so overwhelmed that we would not be able to get up!
Thus the ability to gain perspective, to forget the past and move forward, is a great blessing. This is the secret our sages refer to as the holiness of forgetting. And that ability comes from Moshe breaking the tablets. This was the single greatest legacy he bequeathed to his people. Had the first tablets remained intact, Israel would have been permanently ‘stuck,’ as it were…albeit on a rarified level…but it would not have served the purpose of striving to become better. The new era of the breaking of the tablets and the second set, brought with it the very human ability to strive to fix, to strive for improvement and knowledge. The work is harder than it would have been had the original tablets remained intact – but the personal acquisition of true Torah is more real, more anchored, more lasting, more internal.
This is exactly the secret of why we conclude reading Deuteronomy during the High Holy Days of judgment, and immediately begin again with Genesis. Because just as the year is brand new, so all of creation is renewed, and every person is renewed, and able to start again, no matter what we have been through! We are always able to start again, realizing: I really don’t know anything…I am just starting now. How do I now start reading about creation all over again? Haven’ t I read this before? But it is because I am just now being created anew, the year is being created anew, the whole world is being created anew, I forget everything I knew, because it is a new year, and whatever I knew, is no longer relevant. I am a new person. And we never, ever fall into despair.
Moshe’s wisdom foresaw all this and so he broke the tablets, enabling each of us to start again and forget the mistakes of the past. Whatever happened and whatever I knew before does not matter. So the last thing we read when we conclude the Torah is that Moshe broke the tablets before the eyes of all Israel…and then immediately we start reading the Torah from the beginning. This is exactly what the teshuva, the repentance of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, and the joy of Sukkot is all about! And this is precisely why every year at this time we conclude the Torah and start again…because in G-d’s great kindness everything is reset.
The Torah is concluded and begun again; the year concludes and the New Year begins. Whatever happened in the past, is in the past. Now we go forward. The tablets were broken so we can – we must – begin again. To strive with all our being to become real people, to work at it relentlessly, not to give up,
just as G-d constantly renews creation. We need to believe and know in our hearts that everything is constantly new, no day is like the previous one, no year is like the previous one, whatever we thought we knew, we are starting over again.
Thus the yearly cycle of reading the Torah is a never-ending Mobius strip of ever-increasing self-knowledge and exploration. Moshe's laser-sharp response to a gathering spiritual crisis changed everything in life since then, enabling us to begin the adventure of Torah anew each year, with new eyes and pure hearts.