Between the Lines—Ki Tissa

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Exodus Rabbah 41:7

‫והלוחות מעשה אלהים המה א״ר יהושע בן לוי בכל יום ויום בת קול יוצאת מהר חורב ואומרת אוי להם לבריות מעלבונה של תורה שכל מי שאינו עוסק תדיר בתורה הרי זה נזוף להקב״ה שנא׳ והלוחות מעשה אלהים המה חרות על הלוחות מהו חרות ר׳ יהודה ור׳ ירמיה ורבנן ר׳ יהודה אומר אל תקרי חרות אלא חירות מן גליות ר׳ נחמיה אומר חירות ממלאך המות ורבותינו אומרים חירות מן היסורין

"The tablets were God's work . . . " (Exod. 32:16). R. Joshua b. Levi said: A heavenly voice goes forth daily from Mount Horeb (Sinai), saying: 'Woe unto those creatures who have contempt for the [study of] Torah.' For whoever does not immerse regularly in Torah (study) is detestable to the Blessed Holy One, as it says, "The tablets were God's work, [and the writing was God's writing,] engraved (charut) upon the tablets" (Exod. 32:16).

What is the meaning of charut? R. Judah, R. Jeremiah, and our Sages [discussed this]. R. Judah said: Read not charut (engraved), but cheyrut (freedom) from our exiled lands. R. Nehemiah said: [It means] freedom from the Angel of Death. Our Sages said: [It means] freedom from suffering.

If our ancient Sages truly believed that God loves all of humanity, they definitely had a strange way of showing it at times. Indeed, much of the early rabbis' midrashic imagination involved imagery that offends our modern-day sensibilities. Rather than praising those who dedicate part of their daily or weekly schedule to Torah study, God rebukes individuals who scorn the Torah as a symbol and a record of the prophetic message that Moses conveys from God to Israel. That statement seems to cast aspersions on disobedient "creatures" who have not accepted upon themselves the Torah and its commandments. A closer examination of the second half of the midrash, however, reveals why R. Joshua b. Levi would imagine such harsh condemnation from the heavens.

The midrash continues with interpretations of a wordplay that presents the Torah as God's instrument for our personal and national liberation. Each of the explanations that follow deals with forces in the world that limit us in our lives through physical, psychological, and spiritual ailments. The sacred text represents an antidote to the tribulations of exile, mortality, and bodily or mental anguish. No matter how much one might feel confined or trapped, the Torah provides the key to release us from that painful bondage. If that is the case, then we must reconsider what the "heavenly voice" tells us.

First, the divine Presence at Mount Horeb demonstrates the timelessness of the Sinai experience, which remains accessible to us through study of the Torah. Contempt for the Torah, as opposed to neglect or simple ignorance, represents a direct affront to the purpose of laws meant to make us into a liberated holy nation. Third, we learn that God desires more than requires our dedication to this endeavor of personal and communal growth.

One Hasidic interpretation incorporates those insights while illustrating the imperfection of those original tablets, the entirely divine production of which were too holy for us to handle. Instead, we needed a second set of tablets, which, hewn by Moshe and engraved with God's writing, represent divine and human creativity together. That image conveys the love and mutuality inherent in our partnership with God, who depends on our embracing lifelong learning as a passion and an obligation. May we, through such a transformative approach to education, realize the blessing, "that God gave us a Torah of Truth and implanted eternal life within us."