Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Playing catch with the luchos

Junior came back from school last week with an interesting midrash:

Moshe was bringing down the luchos, but because the Jews sinned, the luchos tried to fly back up to shamayim. To prevent this from happening, Moshe threw the luchos down towards earth with all his strength. But nobody caught them, and they shattered on the ground!

I've never heard this midrash before, and I assume that it is a mistake. Likely not the teacher's mistake, but that some misunderstanding crept in, in the process of transmission. I explained to him that the pasuk itself states that Moshe became angry at the Israelites behavior, as we see {Shemot 32}:

יט  וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרַב אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה, וַיַּרְא אֶת-הָעֵגֶל, וּמְחֹלֹת; וַיִּחַר-אַף מֹשֶׁה, וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ מִיָּדָו אֶת-הַלֻּחֹת, וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֹתָם, תַּחַת הָהָר.19 And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount.

and that the midrash simply was that the letters were keeping up the luchos; when the Israelites sinned, they wanted to return to Heaven. They left; Moshe couldn't keep the luchos up, and so he dropped them. That, at least, is the famous midrash. But I'd never heard this variant, and it seems "off", and so I assume it is an error.

But what about that famous midrash? It would seem to contradict an explicit pasuk. Don't we say ain mikra yotzei midei peshuto?

One reckoning of that midrash:
When Moshe came close to the encampment with the first luchos/t he saw the letters flying off. The luchos/t suddenly became very 'heavy' and they smashed to the ground. 
(Of course, we could simply distinguish between getting angry and the immediately subsequent act of casting down the luchos; it still contradicts the simple meaning of the verse.)

I tracked down a midrash about the letters flying up, in Pesachim 87b:
והיינו דרבי אלכסנדרי דאמר שלשה חזרו למטעתן אלו הן ישראל כסף מצרים וכתב לוחות ישראל הא דאמרן כסף מצרים דכתיב  (מלכים א יד, כה) ויהי בשנה החמישית למלך רחבעם עלה שישק מלך מצרים על ירושלים וגו' כתב הלוחות דכתיב  (דברים ט, יז) ואשברם לעיניכם תנא לוחות נשברו ואותיות פורחות

The simple implication to me is that Moshe shattered the luchos in anger, yet the letters flew up. Not that the letters flew up and this somehow caused Moshe to drop the luchos and the luchos to shatter. So there is no contradiction.

I think the first mention of dropping them because they were too heavy is mentioned in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, perek 45:
"And Moshe took the luchot, and descended. And the luchot (/the writing) carried itself, and Moshe with them. And when they {rather than Moshe} saw the tambourines (/the eigel) and the dances (and the eigel), the writing fled and ascended {?} (/flew off) from the luchot, and they suddenly were quite heavy in the hands of Moshe, and Moshe was not able to bear himself or the luchot, and he cast them from his hand, and they broke underneath the mountain, as it is stated, "And he broke them under {? at the base of ?} the mountain".

This seems a shift. In the first midrash, as found in the gemara, the luchot broke, presumably because of Moshe's anger explicitly mentioned in the pasuk. And the idea is that despite the destruction, the essence returns to its source. That is, still, the words survive and ascend on high. Here, seemingly against the explicit pasuk, Moshe drops the luchot because they are too heavy, and this is a result of the letters ascending on high. So this is not just a reversal of order, but a reversal of cause. And it is one that goes against the simple implication of the pesukim.

Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer is not from Chazal, and I don't know that we would side with a midrash against a pasuk. Various commentators try to harmonize the two. For example, see Rabbenu Bachya. (I didn't have time to locate it inside, but the summary is that it was Moshe's initiative, but in response to feeling the luchos suddenly gain wait. He thus intuited what he should do, and thus Hashem could praise him -- see Shabbat 87a -- for this action.) But I don't really find this harmonization convincing, in terms of the meaning of the respective midrashim.

(The suddenly becoming weak, we might attribute to:
יח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵין קוֹל עֲנוֹת גְּבוּרָה וְאֵין קוֹל עֲנוֹת חֲלוּשָׁה קוֹל עַנּוֹת אָנֹכִי שֹׁמֵעַ: 
Also, compare with the Aron which midrashically supported those who carried it.)

Rashbam cites this Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer and maintains that it is peshat:
פסוק יט
וישלך מידיו -
כשראה את העגל תשש כחו ולא היה בו כח להשליכם רחוק ממנו קצת שלא יזיק את רגליו בנפלם, כדרך כל משליכי משאוי כשאין בהם כח לשאת.
וכן ראיתי בפרקים של רבי אליעזר ועיקר פשוטו כך.

But from his wording, it seems that he does not deny that Moshe was wrothful and threw them -- just that when acting in anger, he was not able to throw it with such force.

See also Rashi to zot Habracha:

12. and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.יב. וּלְכֹל הַיָּד הַחֲזָקָה וּלְכֹל הַמּוֹרָא הַגָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה לְעֵינֵי כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל:
and all the strong hand: [This refers to] his receiving the Torah on tablets with his hands.ולכל היד החזקה: שקבל את התורה בלוחות בידיו:
And all the great awe: [This refers to the] miracles and mighty deeds [that were performed for Israel] in the great and awesome wilderness. — [Sifrei 33:41]ולכל המורא הגדול: נסים וגבורות שבמדבר הגדול והנורא:
before the eyes of all Israel: [This expression alludes to the incident, where] His heart stirred him up to smash the tablets before their eyes, as it is said, “and I shattered them before your eyes” (Deut. 9:17). - [Sifrei 33:41] And [regarding Moses shattering the Tablets,] the Holy One Blessed is He gave His approval, as Scripture states, “[the first Tablets] which you shattered” (Exod. 34:1); [God said to Moses:] “Well done for shattering them!” - [Shab.. 87a]לעיני כל ישראל: שנשאו לבו לשבור הלוחות לעיניהם, שנאמר (לעיל ט, יז) ואשברם לעיניכם, והסכימה דעת הקב"ה לדעתו, שנאמר (שמות לד, א) אשר שברת, יישר כחך ששברת:

where it indeed seems that Moshe was strong in holding the luchos; and separately, that it was a conscious act to break the luchos. If so, the midrash in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer not only contradicts the simple implication of the verse, but various midrashim as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would like to share a thought in pshat about why Moshe broke the Luchot. I have never seen this anywhere. Moshe knew about the sin of the Eigel while still on Har Sinai. If so, why does he come down with the Luchot. Did he come down with the intention to break them? I propose that he had no intention to break them, but he saw in actuality something different than what he was told about. Hashem had told him about the eigel; however, when he came down the pasuk says that he saw the eigel and mecholot. For Moshe, that was too much. The Bnei Yisrael as opposed to the Bnot Yisrael weren't able to do Mecholot at kriat yam suf and now for the eigel they are doing mecholot that was such degredation and depravity that he broke the luchot.


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