The Torah in Parashat Ki-Tisa tells the famous story of cheit ha-eigel – the sin of the golden calf – in response to which Moshe threw to the ground and shattered the stone tablets given to him by God atop Mount Sinai, upon which were engraved the Ten Commandments. After God agreed to forgive the people, He instructed Moshe to carve two new stone tablets upon which the commandments would be engraved anew (34:1).
The Gemara in Masekhet Nedarim (38a) discerns from the formulation of God’s instruction to Moshe – “pesol lekha” – that the pesolet, the dust that was produced when Moshe chiseled the stones, was allowed to be kept by Moshe. This dust was very valuable – the commentators explain that this was a precious type of a stone – and thus Moshe became wealthy as a result of pesolatan shel luchot – the dust produced from the carving of the new tablets.
What might be the significance of Moshe’s achieving wealth through his carving a second set of tablets after the sin of the golden calf?
Chatam Sofer (cited in Likutei Chaver Ben Chaim) offers an allegorical interpretation of the Gemara’s remark. He suggests that the image of the “dust,” the pieces of stone which were not actually part of the luchot (tablets), represents that which is not written as part of the corpus of Torah, but ought to be self-understood. Common decency and basic courtesy are not included among the technical requirements of Torah law, but our commitment to middot (refined character traits) must precede our commitment to the Torah’s specific demands. Refined character, the Chatam Sofer explains, is the material from which the stone tablets were made; it is not written on the tablets along with the other commandments, but it forms the basis and foundation of the commandments.
Moshe’s “wealth” – his special stature as God’s prophet and as the communicator of His commands, Chatam Sofer explains, resulted from “pesolatan shel luchot,” his outstanding character. In Parashat Shemot, where the Torah tells us of Moshe’s life before his being selected for his role of prophet and leader, we read of his sensitivity to the plight of the underprivileged, and his selfless commitment to help. The Torah makes no mention of Moshe’s brilliance or devotion to God, but gives several examples of his compassion for the downtrodden and his contempt for injustice. He intervened when he observed an Egyptian taskmaster beating a helpless slave, when he observed one Israelite slave beating another, and when he observed Midyanite shepherds chasing Yitro’s daughters from the well. Thus, Chatam Sofer explained, the Gemara attributes Moshe’s “wealth” – his unique stature of greatness – to “pesolatan shel luchot,” to his character, his empathy, compassion and sensitivity, to those areas of Torah which are self-understood prerequisites to the formal dictates of the Torah. Before we can hope to achieve greatness, we must first achieve goodness, conducting ourselves with basic decency and sensitivity towards others.