Parshas Bamidbar (5769)
This coming Thursday evening May 28th Jews all around the world will be celebrating the holiday of Shavuos – the Festival of Weeks. Shavuos commemorates the anniversary of the day G-d gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai over 3300 years ago.
According to Jewish tradition, as recorded in the Torah and the Talmud, the Ten Commandments were engraved on two tablets of blue sapphire stone of equal size – each 6 x 6 x 3 tefachim (handbreadths) squares. This is contrary to the popular view that the Tablets were rectangular in shape and square at the bottom with rounded, semicircular tops.
The five commandments on the one tablet deal with the relationship between Man and G-d, while the other five commandments deal with the relationship between Man and Man. [For a brilliant essay on the Ten Commandments, click here]
The Torah refers to the Tablets as Luchos Ha’Eidus – “Tablets of Testimony” (see Exodus 31:18). The Ohr HaChaim explains that the very manner in which the Tablets were inscribed was testimony to their Divine origin. As the Midrash teaches us - based on a verse in Exodus 32:15 - even though the words of the Ten Commandments were not engraved on the surface, but rather were bored fully through the stone, they could be read exactly the same way from both sides (and not backwards from one side, as one would have expected). This miraculous writing could only have been accomplished by G-d Himself.
The Talmud in Megillah 15a relates that when Queen Esther was trying to find out what the Jewish people might have done to deserve being threatened with total annihilation by the wicked Haman, she sent a cryptic message to Mordechai “to learn what is zeh [this] and why is zeh [this]?” (see Esther 4:5). Said Rabbi Yitzchak: She was really hinting to him that perhaps the Jews had transgressed the Five Books of the Torah about which it says, “they [the Ten Commandments] were written on zeh [this] side and on zeh [this] side” (Exodus 32:15).
This Talmudic teaching is difficult to understand. First of all, we know the reason why the Jews were almost punished at that time – the Talmud itself teaches us elsewhere in Tractate Megillah (12a) that the Jews deserved to be threatened with genocide because they had lost much of their passion for Torah and Judaism and were hanging out at the Persian king’s wild parties hoping to assimilate into the non-Jewish culture.
Secondly, what does Queen Esther mean when she hints that the Jews had transgressed the Ten Commandments which were written (and read) equally from both sides? How is this miraculous feature of the Tablets relevant at all to the question of how the Jews might have sinned? The Be’er Yosef explains that the grave mistake the Jewish people made at that time was to think that the Torah was only given for a particular time and place – and that maybe when we are in our own land we have to follow the laws of the Torah, but in the exile, when we are living among non-Jews, things are different. After all, they said, we are living in Persia so we have to “fit in” with our neighbors and relax some of the laws and restrictions that had been in effect when we were still living autonomously in the Land of Israel.
This is what Esther was hinting at when she mentioned to Mordechai the curious and miraculous fact that the Tablets of Testimony could be read from both sides equally. This open miracle was meant to teach the Jewish people – and to engrave into the Tablets and into our hearts for all time – a most powerful lesson: The Torah is G-d’s Divine wisdom and is as eternal as G-d Himself. G-d, Who knows and controls all of history, wrote this amazing Book and gave it to us to study from and to live by for all time. (After all, if the Torah is meant to be Toras Chaim – an Instruction Book for Optimal Living – as it claims to be, it is absurd to think that G-d only cared about the first couple of generations of Jews and wrote the Torah with them in mind and left all the rest of us on our own when we went into exile all the way up till modern times.) And, as such, one can never say that “times have changed” and that certain Mosaic laws and rituals “fail to impress the modern Jew” and are therefore no longer binding on us.
The Torah can be read equally from all sides because from any vantage point or time in history, its messages are always timely and timeless – and never “out of touch”, G-d forbid.
This year, as we celebrate yet another Shavuos and we read about the Tablets of Testimony that Moses brought down from G-d at Mount Sinai, let us remember that the Torah and its many beautiful lessons for life talk to us today no less than they did when our ancestors first heard them over 3300 years ago … and they’re never going out of style.