February 21st-22nd, 2003
20 Adar I, 5762
"When He [G-d] finished speaking to him on Mt.
Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets (luchos) of Testimony, stone tablets
inscribed by the finger of G-d." (Exodus: 31, 18)
When it comes to the commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah, many
people--Jews included--have a habit of picking and choosing which ones to
attempt to perform, and which ones to leave by the wayside (if not to
discredit). "This one seems more relevant to me as a ‘modern’ person,"
someone might reason, or "This one speaks to me with greater urgency than
that one." I have even heard it said that some individuals, as a matter of
principle, examine each individual commandment, and ask themselves, "Do I
feel that I am commanded with regard to this particular directive, or
not?" If the answer is, "yes," then they choose to make that mitzvah a
part of their religious life and routine, and if not, they move on to the
Now, there is a lot to say on this subject. For the time being, though,
let it suffice to point out that in the view of the Torah itself, this is
certainly not a valid approach. In many places, the Torah points out that
it is only in the (joyful) fulfillment of ALL of the commandments, as a
comprehensive and life-spanning system of divine instruction, that we Jews
can achieve our ultimate goal (and historical purpose): to be a "holy
people" (goy kadosh). (Or, if you prefer the famous designation of our
mission by the prophet, Isaiah: to be a "light unto the nations.") This is
hinted at in the third paragraph of the Shema, recited by observant Jews
twice each day: "…in order that you may remember and perform all of My
commandments, and be holy unto your G-d." How do we become a holy people?
By keeping all of the commandments.
Traditionally, we believe that each individual commandment represents an
expression of the Divine will--a unique and indispensable opportunity to
elevate (and purify) an aspect of our individual selves and souls, as well
as to "rectify" some aspect of the totality of G-d’s creation. (The often
heard phrase, "tikkun olam," rectifying the world, has its roots in the
Jewish mystical idea that when the Jewish people perform the Torah’s
commandments, they elevate all of Creation.) Each mitzvah illuminates a
certain aspect of our soul, if you will, and when we do our best to keep
ALL of the mitzvot, we maximize our spiritual wattage!
Of course, it’s true that each one of us is at a unique point on our own
spiritual ladder, or journey, and we may not feel ready to "bite off more
than we can chew" at the present time. It is understandable that a person
interested in growing in Jewish observance will pick a mitzvah, a
practice, that he or she feels comfortable with right now, hoping (one
hopes) to be able to fulfill more at some future date. This is normal, and
healthy. As long as we are trying to head UP the ladder from day to day,
and year to year, then we’re heading in the right direction…and doing
what’s expected of us. One Rabbi I know commented that the only meaningful
distinction between Jews is not between "denominations" or "branches," but
rather between those who are looking to grow in their practice of
Judaism…and those who are not!
Nobody has reached the highest rung of service of G-d, nobody has attained
absolute perfection. Growth is a process, not an overnight transformation.
But what I’ve just described is vastly different from boldly declaring
that certain commandments "just don’t apply to me (or us)--not now, not
ever!" Some people have declared certain mitzvos forever invalid for
themselves, or hopelessly out of reach. This, I believe, is a tragic
mistake (and a common one). Even those commandments that seem remote from
our understanding yield their depth of meaning--and wealth of beauty--when
we sincerely study them and try to carry them out. When we try to live
them. If some people do not feel not ready for "doing it all" today, well,
then, let them strengthen what observances they are doing…and let them
long for the day that they can do the rest. (This is the advice of the
great ethical work, Duties of the Heart.)
And what does all this have to do with the Torah portion of the week?
One of the basic distinctions, or divisions, people make between the
commandments is "those that relate to one’s relationship to one’s fellow
man," versus "those that relate to one’s relationship with G-d." Indeed,
this is a useful distinction to make…and one employed by G-d Himself, when
He gave the two tablets of the Law (on which the 10 Commandments were
inscribed) to Moses! For, as our commentators explain, the first five
commandments (i.e., one of the two tablets) focus on our relationship to
G-d: "I am the Lord, your G-d…," "You shall not have other gods," "observe
the Sabbath," etc. The second five (those on the second tablet), in
contrast, focus on interpersonal relations : "Don’t kill," "don’t commit
adultery," "don’t covet," etc. (Of course, there is, in a sense, a man-G-d
relationship implicit in EVERY mitzvah, for we observe even the
"interpersonal" ones in accordance with G-d’s will.)
Some people decide that "the interpersonal commandments" are more
important, for the Torah cares more about how we treat each other than how
we relate to G-d. Other people, in their zeal to develop closeness to G-d,
tend to shortchange those seemingly less "spiritual" man-man commandments.
This week’s Torah portion tells us that we need to treat BOTH kinds of
commandments with equal respect, and observe BOTH kinds with equal
alacrity…for we can only attain holiness by trying to live according to
BOTH of the tablets of the Law.
The Torah hints to this in the very way in writes the word, "tablets,"
luchos, in the verse quoted at the outset: "When He [G-d] finished
speaking to him on Mt. Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets (luchos) of
Testimony, stone tablets inscribed by the finger of G-d." Our Sages point
out that the way it is written in the Torah (without a vav) is in the
singular form, even though it is vocalized as a plural. What’s the
message? (No such anomaly in the Torah is random; they all come to teach
something.) The two tablets form a UNITY--each one is equally important,
each aspect of our religious life [man-man; man-G-d] requires of us the
same passion and commitment, without skimping on one or the other. We may
divide up the Torah and its commandments for educational purposes, but
insofar as it is to be carried out in practice, the Torah is a UNITY. We
should strive to observe it in its totality.
Interestingly, a great Torah commentator (the Ba’al HaTurim) points out
further that the two tablets represent "heaven and earth, groom and bride,
the two aspects of Torah [written and oral], and the two worlds [this
world and the next]." His comment fits in beautifully with our theme, and
indeed, extends its scope. Just as the two tablets represent two types of
commandments (or two aspects of our spiritual aspirations: man to G-d, and
man to man) which together form an inseparable unity, so too do the
tablets represent other pairs of concepts that form an inseparable unity!
A husband and a wife are two separate individuals…but really one unit, one
spiritual entity. This world and the next seem like very separate
domains…but they are really one! Everything in the physical world has its
roots in the spiritual realm, and everything we human beings do has an
impact on that spiritual realm; we create our own "world to come" with our
actions here. The two portions of Torah, written and oral, are
inextricably linked and form a unity: we can’t understand the verses of
the Five Books of Moses properly without the oral tradition that
We have to learn to appreciate the unity of all of these apparent
dichotomies. The two tablets that are really one can help us grasp that
As one rabbi once quipped, "The Great Doctor (G-d) prescribed two tablets
for the Jewish people at Sinai. If we want to be spiritually healthy, we
need to follow His instructions…and take both!"
May we all follow the doctor’s orders, and learn to take (i.e., live) both
tablets--that is, strive to elevate our souls by means of all the various
mitzvot. Then we will be sure to get a clean--and eternal--bill of health!
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