It’s a good thing Mel Brooks’ Moses dropped that third tablet, because Ten Commandments are hard enough to obey. Late-night screen-scrolling while in bed might not tempt you to design graven images and hawk them on Etsy, but if you’re anything like me, it has likely led you to Zillow and some major house-coveting. Not taking God’s name in vain has proven a challenge for me every time the Yankees blow a game in the late innings, and most days social media seems like a false testimony factory. The Big Ten haven’t gotten any easier since they were first delivered by Moses on that mountaintop many moons ago.
And anyway, feeling beholden to old restrictions, traditions, and expectations is so two-and-a-half years ago. The way we used to dress (sayonara Brooks Brothers), the expectation we would all go to college, commute every day to work (is that palm-tree-filled background real?), and what entertainment we consume (can I interest you in an $18 movie ticket plus another $7 for popcorn?) no longer cut the mustard.
Along comes the 17th of Tammuz, and it asks us to stop in our tracks. We’re supposed to be mournful and not eat or drink all day because Moses, upon seeing the misbehaving Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf, broke the tablets, those literally set-in-stone, top-down rules and regulations, after spotting his flock betraying him for a Golden Calf.
Do we really feel we lose out when we crack conventional expectations and break with previously held expectations?
For those lucky enough to survive the COVID-19 era with their health and livelihoods generally intact, there likely has even been some light let in through the fissure of what we used to take as unbreakable.
It turns out sourdough is a sanity restorer that, unlike therapy, can double as breakfast. When brick-and-mortar synagogues are closed, spiritual bliss, camaraderie, even some schnapps can be found in your neighbor’s yard. Nightly dinners involved actually sitting down with members of your family with nowhere to run off to afterward, and a summer peanut-butter-sandwich-fueled RV trek to the Midwest gifted your kids with the indelible memories you once thought would necessitate being fleeced for a Disneyland fast pass. Your daughter’s wedding could somehow go off without a hitch without 400 of your closest friends.
Some tablets being broken didn’t turn out so bad after all.
So why, how even, are we expected to have what amounts to a day of shiva for severed old ways?
The ancient rabbis weren’t unaware of the implications of what Moses did when he shattered God’s words. “Yasher koach that you broke them,” they imagine God having said when Moses let the stones fall.
But the shattering, as it turns out, wasn’t the end of the story.
You see, after breaking the originals, Moses carved a new set of tablets. His throwdown wasn’t an excuse to get all antinomian, but an effort to refresh and reinvigorate. The words were the same, but, this time, they were just a bit looser around the edges. They weren’t penned by God’s divine finger but by Moses’ human hands. The letters didn’t change. They just breathed a little easier. A bit more forgiving and a tad less intimidating, they might have offered less promise than the prior set, but this time, they were ours to keep.
Moses, and the rabbis following him, knew that it was easy to drop something. But picking up when it’s time to rebuild and continue the trek through the wilderness we call life is where the real meaning is made.
Sure—we had an extended pause. Sheltering in place sure as heck was no standing at Sinai, but in the respite from the regular it provided some unexpected delights. For some. Others are not so lucky. Whether you had to miss medical treatments, spent two years attending Zoom “school,” or were locked into a cramped home with a person you realized you no longer wanted to be your spouse, there’s brokenness that won’t be fixed any time soon. But whether you feel reinvigorated or still in need of repair, it’s time to move forward.
And that’s exactly the point of the day.
In a striking teaching, the rabbis give us a window into Judaism’s most mysterious structure. The holy ark, which even the High Priest couldn’t even glimpse the outside of except on Yom Kippur, served as a beacon pointing the way toward the Promised Land. Inside, the rabbis teach, lay two sets of tablets. There were the shards of the ones Moses broke on the 17th of Tammuz. And there was the new set. Then, just like now, marching forward meant holding on to repaired and disjointed fragments side by side.
So let’s take this 17th of Tammuz on as a challenge, even if fasting is too much for you. Pausing to consider what the past rendered is an opportunity to consider how the future might honor it while taking its own shape.
You know that newfound enthusiasm you have for Friday night prayers? Bring it back with you to shul. That babka you figured out how to whip up? It’ll go over great at the charity bake sale you organize. That young mom who asks to work from home two days a week even though the rest of the team is back in the office? Do yourself a favor and don’t give her a hard time about it. Make a Shabbat dinner for friends looking for a shidduch. And that ad for a Venice vacation that pops up on Facebook? Ignore it and go rev up that RV again. It’s time for you, too, to rewrite life by your own hand.
Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His edited books include the recently released Esther in America, the first full-length treatment of the Megillah’s interpretation in and impact on the United States, as well as Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.