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What's So Special About The Tablets?

What's So Special About The Tablets?


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

We learn in Parshat Terumah that the tablets of the 10 Commandments have a central place in the mishkan, the Tabernacle. But why? A clue might come from the Torah's constant use of the word "edut," testimony, and "moed," a place of meeting. Come join Rabbi Fohrman and Imu as they puzzle it out.

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Rivky: Hello Parsha Lab listeners. I'm Rivky, the producer for Parsha Lab, here to give you a head's up that this week the audio quality isn't quite as sharp as we generally prefer. We're sorry about that, but it should still be clear enough to listen to, so enjoy the episode.

Imu: Hello and welcome back to another episode of Parsha Lab. I am Imu Shalev.

Rabbi Fohrman: I am Rabbi David Fohrman.

Imu: And this week's parashah is Parashat Terumah. This traditionally on alephbeta.org is when we see a major decline in viewership. For some reason, people don't seem all that interested in reading the long list of instruction the Torah gives us on how to build an Ark. I'm flabbergasted as to why. Rabbi Fohrman, what do you think the reason is?

Rabbi Fohrman: I really have no idea. Arks, actually, seem like the most fascinating part of the Torah, at least for me.

Imu: Yes and so for amazing parashah videos on Terumah please make sure to check out alephbeta.org, but that's not why you're here. You're here to hear something new on Parashat Terumah with us. So without further ado let's jump in.

What Are the Stone Tablets of Testimony?

Imu: Parashat Terumah begins, not really with, sort of, the reason why God is saying necessarily I would like a Mikdash (Sanctuary). It begins with, you know, hey, ask everybody for terumah (a donation). They should donate these sorts of things. "V'asu li Mikdash v'shachanti b'tocham" which you could argue is the reason for the Sanctuary, right? "Please create for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell amongst you." So God seems to want to dwell amongst us, but then the very next thing that happens is we get the Ikea instructions for how to build an Ark.

There are a couple of interesting words that keep popping up that I wanted to bring up with you. If you come with me, in Chapter 25, Verse 16, in the instructions of the Ark. "V'natata el ha'Aron et ha'eidut asher etein eilecha," please put into the Ark the testimony that I am going to give to you. Rabbi Forhman what's the testimony?

Rabbi Fohrman: It seems to be the actual tablets of the Ten Commandments, themselves.

Imu: Okay. Come with me, again now, to Verse 21. "V'natata et hakapporet al ha'Aron l'ma'alah v'el ha'Aron titein et ha'eidut asher etein eilecha." Again, we get this repetition of putting the testimony into the Ark. So God is saying when you put the Ark cover on the Ark, you should put the testimony into the Ark.

Then, here's the interesting verse. "V'no'aditi lecha sham dibarti itcha mei'al hakapporet m'bein shnei haKeruvim," I'm going to meet you there and I'm going to speak to you on top of this covering of the Ark, in between the two Cherubs, "asher al ha'Aron Ha'eidut," that is upon the Ark of Testimony, "eit kol asher atzaveh otcha el Bnei Yisrael," all these things, I'll give you in a commandment to the People of Israel.

A couple of things, I'm noticing here, is the Tabernacle, itself, is seeming to be established all around this Ark. This Ark seems to be the centerpiece. It's the beginning – it's the very first vessel we hear about and that the Ark, itself, is meant to house eidut, testimony. So much so that the Ark is called the Aron Ha'eidut, the Ark of Testimony and later on, throughout the Torah, where we're told that the Tabernacle, itself is called the Tabernacle of Testimony and the tablets are referred to as the Tablets of Testimony.

I want to ask you two questions. One is why is, you know, what is this idea of testimony. Why are the tablets referred to as the Tablets of Testimony? What are they testifying to and why is that testimony seemingly so important that it's at the center of the Tabernacle? So much so that the Tabernacle sometimes is referred to as the Mishkan – the Tabernacle of Testimony.

I want to ask you one more sub-question. Back in that Verse 22, do you see any resonance in "v'no'aditi lecha sham," I'm going to meet you there? In that word no'aditi is the word eid or testimony and we know all over that the Tabernacle is more commonly referred to as Ohel Mo'eid, like the tent of meeting, but, again, in that word is there testimony there? I'm seeing these themes, I'm not sure what to make of them, I wanted to hear from you.

Understanding the Tablets of Testimony

Rabbi Fohrman: Okay, yes, that is indeed fascinating. The word v'no'aditi, there, and I will meet you or I will join up with you, clearly is a playoff of the word testimony which appears over and over again. You pointed out that we have the word eidut as testimony several times and then all of a sudden this word v'no'aditi which is very similar. The letters are actually the same as eidut. So it's clear that it's connected.

It reminds me, Imu, of a similar kind of thing that you have in the Garden of Eden story with the word for nakedness. You have nakedness appearing over and over and over again. The word for nakedness is arom and the man and woman were naked and they weren't ashamed and then they were naked and they were ashamed and there's all sorts of nakedness, but right after we hear that Adam and Eve were naked and they were not ashamed – "shneihem hayu aromim v'lo yitboshashu" – where else do we get the word naked right after that, but we are introduced to our friend?

Imu: The snake who is arom.

Rabbi Fohrman: But it doesn't mean nakedness there. What does it mean?

Imu: It means clever. He's clever; he's a wily snake.

Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. The question is why would the Torah describe, use a word, which it uses over and over again to mean nakedness, why would it use that word to describe the snake and now use the word to mean something else which is crafty, wily? You wouldn't think about crafty and wily, it's actually connected to nakedness. It's not like a different idea, it's not like apples and Cadillacs. They're connected. They're like opposites of each other because if you're open and what you see is what you get, that's what nakedness is; and then when you're crafty you hide your real intention. So why would the Torah use this word to mean nakedness, nakedness, nakedness and all of a sudden use the same word, arom, but in an opposite sense?

It strikes me that this is something the Torah does now and then. It's a kind of surprise tactic and my feeling of, sort of, how to treat this when the Torah does this is, it's creating an intentional surprise for the reader. It's like the Torah is conditioning you to think nakedness, nakedness, nakedness; all of a sudden – surprise – crafty. The idea is, is that if you think about what it does to you, sort of subconsciously as you read a text, and you hear a word and you expect it to mean something, but it actually means something else; there's a part of your brain that's thinking it's supposed to mean A even as you translate it as B. Such that when you hear about the snake, even though the snake is crafty, there's a part of your brain thinking but, one second, in some sense is he also naked? The meanings blend.

I think that's, kind of, what's going on here. I'll give you one more example of this.

Imu: What does it mean to have a naked snake?

Rabbi Fohrman: Ah, so what would it mean to have a naked snake? It would mean that even though this snake is crafty and even though he's wily, that's only true from one perspective, but from another perspective the snake is actually what you see is what you get. The snake is naked. Now, if you actually think about the snake and the snake being naked actually physically speaking, a snake is, sort of, the most naked of all animals in the sense that it doesn't have fur. Right? It's literally like it's skin; snakeskin. But even deeper than that, I think, and this is an argument I make in the book, The Beast that Crouches at the Door --

Imu: It's available on amazon.com.

Rabbi Fohrman: And on alephbeta.org. What the snake is, at some level, is tricky when viewed from a certain perspective, but when viewed from another perspective very open, very what you see is what you get. Very naked as it were.

Really, this is Samson Raphael Hirsch's view of the snake. Which is that the snake is faithfully representing to you what it means to be an animal. The argument it's making is an animalistic argument which from the perspective of man – mankind, that's not an animal – it's a tricky argument, but from the perspective of the snake it's just I'm done just telling you what's it's like to be a snake. I'm very open and upfront, very naked, very transparent.

I wonder if something like that is happening over here which is that same, sort of, methodology as it were. Which is that here you have this idea of testimony, testimony, testimony. That's what the Ark is about, that's what the Tabernacle is about and then, all of a sudden, the Torah throws you for a loop, gives you that same idea and says I'm going to be meeting up with you and somehow that word for meeting up has overtones of testimony and they blur together.

The question is how do these things fit? How does meeting and testimony, how does it go together? I think that, sort of, goes to your second question and maybe I'll just ask you what you think about it, but it really gets to that very troubling and intriguing question which is why is testimony so important? Like, if you would think about the tablets and these are tablets of x and then you have to describe the Ten Commandments; like how would you describe them? If you play, like, Family Feud with the tablets of x and you had to ask me give me one word for the tablets of x – Imu let's play Family Feud.

The Tablets of Covenant, Law... and Testimony?

Imagine the Torah wasn't talking about this and you have the Ten Commandments, tablets of... Imu?

Imu: I mean there's bris, the Tablets of Covenant.

Rabbi Fohrman: The Tablets of the Covenant. That's a great idea. Thirty-one. Our survey says 31 tablets of...

Imu: Law.

Rabbi Fohrman: Bing, bing, bing. Our survey says 59. You're the winner. Right? They're tablets of the law. Tablets are the commands. Tablets are all sorts of thing.

Imu: I won. I never win anything.

Rabbi Fohrman: I know, I know, I know. That's why you do these podcasts because you can win sometimes.

Imu: I love it.

Rabbi Fohrman: And here you have these tablets and they're not Tablets of the Law and they're not Tablets of the Covenant they're Tablets of Testimony. It's like our survey says six. Like six people says Tablets of Testimony, which is not very popular, but the Torah over and over again is going to call them Tablets of Testimony and somehow that's connected to meeting.

What's the testimony? What's this all about? I'm basically just taking your question, Imu, and directing it back at you.

Imu: I happen to think that was masterful. I feel like you made it your own. I think the place I would go to start thinking about this would probably be to consider why are the tablets called the Tablets of Testimony? To what are they testifying?

Rabbi Fohrman: Actually, you know, that's a really, let's talk about that. Tablets, you're looking at these tablets. Give me some, what are you feeling? You look at these things, what do they seem like to you? What is their visual impression that you get looking upon these tablets? What are they tablets of?

Imu: They're tablets of stone.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yes. Isn't that interesting? Tablets of stone, of all things that they are written on – with what?

Imu: With the hand of God.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. Do you see, like, there's this disconnect. Almost like the most ethereal being in the world is God, the most spiritual being in the world and the most concrete, physical, unmovable thing in the world? Stone, granite, you know, whatever this is. Somehow these two things have come together. I wonder, if on some level, that's the meeting point, so to speak, between meeting and testimony. Testimony about meeting. When the hand of God meets stone.

If you think about the whole challenge of the revelation experience, that was the challenge. Think about that challenge. Why is it that the golden calf, of all things, this just terrible, awful sin that almost gets us completely wiped out should happen of all moments at the greatest moment of revelation itself? Why? Why fall so far at this great moment of revelation? Why were the people so worried? Why are they standing back from the mountain?

Moses tries to coax them and says guys, don't worry about it; it's going to be okay. But the people are no, no, no, no you go do this. Like, what's the issue here?

The Meaning Behind the Tablets of Stone

Rabbi Fohrman: The issue is that what is happening is completely unbelievable. There is a being in the heaven. The being beyond space and time. The being that you can't touch, that you can't feel because Master of the Universe Who created the Milky Way with its hundred billion stars, created the Andromeda Galaxy and now is coming into the world and is actually interacting with human beings, limited by space and time, in our flimsy, little bodies and somehow that's supposed to actually work. Like, that can happen without us all dying. It's the most awesome, scary experience in the world and it seems like it shouldn't happen and we're desperate for it to happen and yet we feel like we can't do it.

So stand back, far away. Give me a calf. The calf will do it. The calf will make the connection to me. Something, anything, but me. Moses says no, no, no. You guys can all listen. You guys listen. Moses, no, you, you talk to God. We'll stand back. You'll tell us what He said. As Moses is coming down the mountain, he comes down with something that testifies to meeting; testifies that this thing actually worked. That there's the hand of God on tablets of stone. That Moses was able to actually connect with God on that mountain.

Actually, if I can take you to the end of this section, because if you think about this section of text, this section of the Bible, you have Terumah which is the story of the Tabernacle going all the way through Parashat Terumah, Parashat Tetzaveh, the beginning of Ki Tisa. Flip with me for a second to where this section ends. In other words, the moment when Moses actually gets what it is that God says He's going to give me because look at that verse that you just wrote.

Let's just read it again. "You're going to put in the Ark, the Tablets of Testimony that I will give you." When does Moses actually get them? He gets them at the end of the section. I think it's like 31. Can you come with me to 31 for a second?

Imu: Sure. Parashat Ki Tisa.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right. So this is where it ends. What happens? Look at 31, Verse 18. "Vayitein el Moshe k'chaloto l'dabeir ito," so after this whole long speech, about the Tabernacle, God gave Moses what He said He was going to give him, "b'Har Sinai shnei Luchot Ha'eidut," these two tablets of testimony, "luchot even," tablets of stone – but stone, again, contrasts "k'tuvim b'etzba Elokim," written, so to speak, with the finger of God.

The meeting of stone, of this world, with the finger of God. Right? These tablets are proof that this really happened and Moses comes down with them and it strikes me as kind of interesting that there's this whole section of Tabernacle followed by this little section of Sabbath. If you look, right over here, Verses 12–17, God is saying oh, by the way, keep the Sabbath, keep the Sabbath, keep the Sabbath and then God gives Moses these tablets of stone.

You know, one of the things we talked about in some of our parashah videos is this that there's a commonality between the Tabernacle and the Sabbath. The commonality is that they're both, sort of, meeting places. Places in which man encounters God. One of them is a special place in space and the other is a special place in time. The special place in space we call the Tabernacle. The special place in time we call the Sabbath.

It's almost as if God is saying hey, Moses, we had a great time up here in the mountain. This was an incredible moment of connection between the Master of the Universe and humankind, but you were the only one who experienced it. But it doesn't have to be that way; we can bring others into the equation too. I want you to come down and the last things that I'm telling you about is that you have to build something. You have to build a Mishkan. You have to build a Tabernacle, a special place and space and you have to build a special place in time called Sabbath. And you can bring everyone into that encounter.

It's all about what? It's about mo'eid, it's about v'no'aditi, it's about coming together and meeting. And if they tell you it's impossible, if they tell you there's no way that man can encounter God, your experience is the proof of it. These tablets show that it happened. They testify the meeting between the Divine and human is possible, it happens and for generations the Ark and the stones within it are a testimony to the possibility of meeting.

Imu: So let me see if I understand how you – it sounds like what you're saying then is the core root of the primate experience or of these tablets that are written by the hand of God is that they testify to our connection with God, they testify to God wanting to meet with us and that was the time where He did. That was the time where He talked to us and this is what He sent to us when He met us and it is now ensconced in that impermanence into beautiful symbols so when we met God the first time He talked to us and now the testimony of that it's a reminder of that forever is His hand on our earthly stone. And that gets ensconced in a special place that is going to be a descending of our camp; a Tabernacle of Testimony which is going to do two things.

It's going to serve as a place of perpetual connection for us and it's going to remind us constantly of that connection. It will remind us of that, maybe that first meeting?

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. If you think about it in these terms there are so many ways in which the connection between man and God seems impossible. You know, the way I put it before is in terms of physics. How does a being outside of space and time come into space and time? But that's only one of the ways. Even think about law itself. You know, what's written on these Tablets of Testimony? These very human laws that really apply only to humans.

Don't murder. Keep the Sabbath. Don't commit adultery. Don't covet. All these, like, very human things. And if you would imagine, sort of, as a skeptic you might imagine okay, so like if I think of the Master of the Universe. He has all sorts of things on His mind and He's like way beyond what it's like to be human and one of the skeptical things that you can imagine in sort of arguing that an encounter between man and God might be impossible is who says our minds can connect? Who says the mind of God connects to the mind of man? Why would God even be concerned about the life of man? The vastness of God seems like a chasm to why that could you really translate God's will into this world?

If you think about it, almost as a mathematician, as a physicist, I remember reading a book by, I think, it was Paul Davies, a physicist from Australia. I think it was called The Mind of God and one of the things he argues in the book is that one of the deepest mysteries of mathematics is that the universe is mathematically comprehensible. That it's hard to figure out the math, but the math is at the level that a human mind could understand it and the fact that the universe is understandable it's almost like that connecting point between the mind of God and the mind of man. That we can reach out with our minds and somehow connect to this, sort of, mathematical beauty which is the soul of physical creation. That exists not just in mathematics; it exists in the social realm, in the judicial realm. In the law that we bring down, there is a will of God that is meaningful, that's actually Godly that translates into the world of man.

When you think of that, that that ensconced in law in these tablets, that's, kind of, mind blowing.

The Testimony of God's Writing on the Stone Tablets

Imu: Yeah. A think, for me, I take away of all of this is to consider the fact that you could make a big deal about Ohel Mo'eid, emotionally. Right? What it must have been like for people to center their city, to center their camp around a place of meeting. It's a place of very obvious meeting, I think. The cloud would come down and that's pretty miraculous. It's pretty crazy to know oh, what's that? Oh, that's God's cloud. God and Moses, they're talking right now. How emotionally and spiritually stirring that must have been.

Then there's the testimony side of it. The testimony side of it, to me, feels like it's answering a human failing which is our tendency to forget, our tendency to deny reality and testimony is something very powerful because it tries to help remind us of what the reality is. Another way of saying it is, testimony makes it impossible to deny the truth of a reality.

So when you bring those two concepts together of testimony and meeting, on the one hand, there's the closeness, like, I want to be close to God, I want to be close to You, I want to meet You. But, on the other hand, after that you brought up the golden calf, sometimes we don't want to align ourselves with that reality. Sometimes that's too much for us, sometimes we're scared of it and sometimes we want to enjoy our lives without the commitment of that closeness. And the testimony, the eidus, the presence of that Ark, the presence of that Tabernacle at the center of the camp draws you back in and, sort of, demands that one take that reality for what it is.

Thankfully, it's not a fear reality. The reality is we're close; we're meeting, but it is reality.

Rabbi Fohrman: It's a beautiful way to think about it. That it's like this lofty goal that seems almost impossible. This notion of meeting between mankind and God and, at the same time, the emblem of that meeting is an emblem that such meeting is possible as a constant reminder in that as a kind of beckoning to mankind that don't shirk away from this, don't shirk away from this. Even though, you live in this physical world and it is easy to think the Divine is up there and not down here. This is true, this is true, this is true and engage that truth.

I think it's a powerful way of putting it. Almost as if the possibility of meeting, like, there's a part of you emotionally that's beckoned towards meeting with God. I want to love God, I want to love God and be part of Him. Then there's this other part which is I'm scared of God, I'm scared of God, I'm scared of God. I want to pull away and against the I'm scared of God, I'm scared of God, I'm scared of God I want to pull away there's this testimony, testimony, testimony that's saying no, this is true. This can really happen, this is and engage this. This is a reality. It's here in your world, it's here for you and you can't run away from reality. And God is there to be engaged and it's not a fantasy. It's not something you can pawn off to your imagination. Engage in this – this is as real as the stone that you could touch; these letters that are written with the finger of God.

Imu: All right. Rabbi Fohrman, I want to thank you so much for podding with me this week. For those of you who are interested, Rabbi Fohrman and I actually continue the conversation. You know, today we don't have a Tabernacle and I think that the ideas here are really emotionally resonant and make you, kind of, sad that we don't have a Tabernacle. So I asked Rabbi Fohrman how we can possibly relate to these ideas today, without a Tabernacle.

If you want to hear that make sure you sign onto alephbeta.org. It's for subscribers only. If you're not yet a subscriber, it's a great way to support this podcast in the work that Rabbi Fohrman and I do at alephbeta.org; teaching Torah, making awesome Torah videos. There's the rest of this podcast and hundreds of other amazing, animated videos. I'm sure you'll love to join. And if you're already here, at the end of this podcast, please make sure to rate, review, share with friends and send feedback because we're always interested in reading it. Rabbi Fohrman and I trade feedback throughout the week. We love reading what you guys write to us so please do.

Thanks for listening. See you later.

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