Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — from Oklahoma via Moses in Egypt and Lurianic Kabbala in Safed to the contemporary understanding of tikkun olam ]

Broken Commandment Tablets

A deranged man drove his car into a 6′ representation of the 10 Commandments near the Oklahoma state Capitol a day or two ago. He apparently said the devil made him do it, which might be taken to imply belief in God, no? Tom Ricks at FP commented, aptly enough:

I am getting tired of the suspects blaming Satan.


It is not by any means the first time the Tablets of the Law have been broken, however: Moses himself broke them when he returned with them to the people of Israel and found them worshipping the golden calf, as Exodus 32.19 tells us [edited to use the new JPS version here]:

As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.

The motives in the two cases were entirely different, as were the contexts — but there’s a follow-up to the first breaking of the tablets, and it might be worth pondering now that we’ve been faced with the recent event in Oklahoma City. For myself, I find it more profitable to contemplate this follow-up and its implications than the furious political battle around public religious monuments here in the US — or the unhappy behavior of a man who stopped taking his meds and believed the devil possessed him, telling him to smash one such monument.


A second version of the Tale of the Broken Tablets is found in Deuteronomy 9. 15-17, and it goes like this:

I started down the mountain, a mountain ablaze with fire, the two Tablets of the Covenant in my two hands. 16 I saw how you had sinned against the Lord your God: you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that the Lord had enjoined upon you. 17 Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes.

Thus far the two narratives agree, the main point of interest being the Deuteronomic statement that the mountain was (still) “ablaze with fire” — a point which will find its resonances later in this post. But Deuteronomy 10. 1-5 also tells us what happened to the broken shards of the first tablets:

Thereupon the Lord said to me, “Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.”

I made an ark of acacia wood and carved out two tablets of stone like the first; I took the two tablets with me and went up the mountain. The Lord inscribed on the tablets the same text as on the first, the Ten Commandments that He addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. Then I left and went down from the mountain, and I deposited the tablets in the ark that I had made, where they still are, as the Lord had commanded me


The rabbis have commented extensively on the eventual fate of the broken tablets, ie their placement in the ark. Thus R Natan of Nemirov, a student of the great R Nachman of Breslov — grandson of the Baal Shem Tov — writes:

And this is the meaning of the verse “Which you broke and place in the Ark”, about which our Sages said: “the Tablets and the Broken Tablets are placed in the Ark”. By means of the aspect of broken tablets, broken faith, by means of that brokenness itself the faith returns and amends itself, which is the second tablets. Because thanks to the existence of a shard of the broken faith, by keeping that shard he is fulfilling the advice of the faith itself which was broken – and he can return and repair that faith which is the aspect of receiving second tablets.

while the earlier Kabbalist, R Eliahu Devidash tells us:

The Zohar teaches that the human heart is the Ark. And it is known that in the Ark were stored both the Tablets and the Broken Tablets. Similarly, a person’s heart must be full of Torah… and similarly, a person’s heart must be a broken heart, a beaten heart, so that it can serve as a home for the Shekhina. For the Shekhina [divine presence] only dwells in broken vessels, which are the poor, whose heart is a broken and beaten heart. And whoever has a haughty heart propels the Shekhina from him, as it says “God detests those of haughty hearts”.


This brings us to what Howard Schwartz writes in his How the Ari Created a Myth and Transformed Judaism::

For many modern Jews, the term tikkun olam (repairing the world) has become a code-phrase synonymous with social and environmental action. It is linked to a call for healing the ills of the world. Indeed, tikkun olam has become the defining purpose of much of modern Jewish life. What many of those who use this term do not know is that this idea is rooted in the last great myth infused into Jewish tradition, a cosmological myth created in the sixteenth century by the great Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari (1534-1572). Here the term “myth” refers to a people’s sacred stories about origins, deities, ancestors and heroes.

What was this myth? Schwartz describes it thus:

At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, He first drew in His breath, contracting Himself. From that contraction darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), the light that came into being filled the darkness, and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.

In this way God sent forth those ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. Had they all arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful, divine light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars. Those sparks fell everywhere, but more fell on the Holy Land than anywhere else.

Notice once again the motif of ten containers of the divine generosity which are shattered… a connection which Schwartz makes explicit:

The second stage, that of the shattering of the vessels, may have been inspired by the biblical account of Moses throwing down and breaking the first tablets of the law (Exod. 32:19), which, like the holy vessels, were crafted by God on high. So too is there a biblical passage about scattered sparks, found in Ezekiel 10:2, where fiery coals from the Temple altar are scattered by some angelic figures over the city of Jerusalem: “Fill your hands with glowing coals from among the cherubs, and scatter them over the city.” This passage manages to work in the scattering, the sparks, the concentration of sparks on the Holy Land (especially Jerusalem), and the holiness of the sparks, since they come from the altar.

Schwartz concludes with the imperative of Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world:

That is why we were created — to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. God created the world so that the descendents of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles — to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.

And when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete.


I learn as I go, and I go as the world unfolds.

I am grateful, besides Howard Schwartz, to Rabbi Mishael Zion, Co-Director and Director of Education for the Bronfman Fellowships for his Broken Tablets: A Study Guide for Shavuot, and to Dr. Lawrence Fine for his Tikkun in Lurianic Kabbalah.

And I am more than grateful for the two volumes of Martin Buber‘s Tales of the Hasidim, without which I might know nothing of the Baal Shem Tov. His story too is a tale of the wondrous fire.

It seems to me that Tikkun Olam is the task before us, believers and unbelievers alike, in whatever way the works of love may be accomplished.