The National Heirloom
V'Zot HaBracha (Deuteronomy 33-34 )
Every little Jewish child learns this verse: Torah tzivah lanu Moshe morashah kehillas Yaakov. The Torah Moshe commanded us is an heirloom for the congregation of Yaakov.” Sometimes the word morashah is translated as an inheritance or a heritage, but this is not precise. The exact translation of the word morashah is heirloom.
An heirloom is something we hold precious and dear, something we cherish because it connects us to the treasured past, something we want to pass along to future generations, just as we have received it ourselves from earlier generations.
The Torah is the heirloom of the Jewish people. It is the sublime heirloom, our eternal connection to the Almighty. In the words of the Psalmist (Tehillim 144:15), “Fortunate is the nation that has it so, fortunate is the nation that God is their Lord.”
What is an heirloom to the gentile world? I would like to recount a story I once read about a woman who went on her first deer hunt and shot her first deer. She made laborious preparations for this momentous event. She studied a stack of books about deer hunting, and she learned how to shoot a 30-30 Model 94 Winchester rifle that had been handed down in the family for generations.
So what was her heirloom? A 30-30 Model 94 Winchester rifle. Her great-grandfather passed it on lovingly to her grandfather, and her grandfather gave it to her. On the morning of the hunt, she took the rifle apart and lovingly cleaned and oiled it until it gleamed. And then she went out and shot her first deer. A thrilling moment.
How fortunate are we that the Torah is our heirloom! How fortunate are the Jewish people that God is their Lord!
His Finest Moment
The Torah concludes with a stirring eulogy for Moshe, the lawgiver of the Jewish people, “Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe, whom God knew face to face; all the signs and wonders that God sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants and all his land; all the strong hands and great awesome deeds Moshe displayed before the eyes of all Israel.”
Each of these phrases, as interpreted by Rashi, recalls a specific aspect of Moshe’s greatness, leading step by step to the climax of his epitaph: “before the eyes of all Israel,” that he had the courage to smash the Luchos, Tablets of the Ten Commandments, in full view of the Jewish people. When all was said and done, this was the ultimate expression of Moshe’s greatness, the most superb act he ever performed.
What was so magnificent about this act that it transcended his Torah and all the great miracles he performed?
The Ateres Mordechai offers a profound insight. Before we begin a project, whether it is a book or a building or anything else, we can consider it critically and objectively. But once the project gets underway, we are no longer so objective. And as the project progresses, our objectivity progressively shrinks – until it completely disappears. After we have written our book, we are so invested that we no longer want to entertain any critical thoughts. We don’t want to hear that we made a mistake in this or that we shouldn’t have written that. We go to extremes to defend against our critics, although we might have made the same arguments ourselves before the fact.
And what if we publish a work on the Torah or even a single shtickel Torah, an original Torah homily? We are so proud and pleased with ourselves that we will twist and turn and squirm and contort ourselves every which way to make the unworkable work.
Can we imagine then how Moshe must have felt when he came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments? This was what he had been working toward for years. He had sacrificed for these Tablets. He had spent forty days in Heaven without food or drink fending off the angels and securing the Tablets for the Jewish people. This was his magnum opus, his life’s work.
Now he comes down the mountain and sees the people worshiping the Golden Calf. He knows instinctively what he must do. He knows that the people are unworthy and that he must smash the Tablets.
And what about all the toil and effort he had invested in them?
He could easily have rationalized to himself, “All right, the people clearly don’t deserve the Tablets now, but maybe things will change. What’s the point of breaking the Luchos if I might need them again in a day or two? Perhaps I should just put them aside without showing them to the people until they are again deserving. Why ruin a good pair of Tablets?”
But Moshe did not do this. He had absolute integrity. He disregarded all the efforts he had invested in the Tablets. He did not consider that his life’s work was going to waste. Truth demanded that he break them, and he did not hesitate to do so.
This was the ultimate virtue the Torah could ascribe to Moshe. The truth, the integrity, the honesty, the clarity of vision uncolored by personal considerations. This was his greatest accomplishment.
I heard a beautiful comment along these lines from Rav Mordechai Gifter. The Talmud tells us (Kiddushin 57a) that Shimon the Amsonite used to develop a secondary meaning from every single occurrence of the Hebrew particle es in the Torah. For instance, in the commandment of honoring parents there is an es, from which he derived the inclusion of older siblings.
One day, he turned his attention to the verse (Devarim 6:13), “Es Hashem Elokecha tira. You shall fear God your Lord.” All of a sudden, he said, “This cannot be. There is no secondary recipient of the fear we must feel for Hashem.” Therefore, he recanted on all his original derivations, thousand and thousands of insights, because his rule could not be applied consistently to the entire Torah.
And then Rabbi Akiva came along and taught that even in this there could be secondary recipients – Torah scholars! They are worthy of sharing the reverence for the Divine.
But why, asks Rav Gifter, couldn’t Shimon the Amsonite think of this solution? Why was this specialist on the es particle stumped while Rabbi Akiva was able to figure it out?
The answer, says Rav Gifter, is that Rabbi Akiva saw the way Shimon the Amsonite dealt with this problem. He saw the tremendous devotion to truth, the inviolable intellectual integrity, the willingness to forfeit many years of effort and creativity if there was a problem with the reasoning. When Rabbi Akiva saw that a Torah scholar could reach such a level of integrity and honesty in defense of the truth of Torah, he realized that Torah scholars too can share in the reverence for the Divine. They can be included in “Es Hashem Elokecha tira.”
Customarily, a glass is broken at a Jewish wedding. What is the reason for this custom? The reason most commonly given is to recall the destruction of Yerushalayim during times of rejoicing. One commentator connects this custom to the breaking of the Tablets of the Commandments. Why do we need to be reminded of this event during a wedding?
Perhaps it is because the breaking of the Tablets was such an act of profound honesty and integrity on the part of Moshe. In order for a marriage to work, there is also a need for extraordinary honesty and integrity on the part of both husband and wife. In case of discussion or disagreement, both have to speak and act with absolute honesty and integrity, to be straight and aboveboard, to do what is right rather than what is comfortable and convenient. Both have to be ready to admit their mistakes rather than stand on their pride. Both need to be prepared to let go of their preconceived notions and prejudices and work toward the common good. Both have to be willing to face the truth.
These are not easy demands, but if husband and wife want to gain the most happiness possible from their marriage, they have to find the strength of character in themselves to do these things. The reminder of the breaking of the Tablets is meant to give them courage. If Moshe was ready to break them and let go of all his hopes and dreams for the sake of truth, these two people can find a way to build their marriage on a foundation of truth.