In Moshe’s address to Benei Yisrael in Parashat Eikev, he recalls the tragic incident of cheit ha-eigel – the sin of the golden calf. He describes how, after descending from Mount Sinai with the two stone tablets given to him by God, he saw the people worshipping the golden calf, whereupon “I took hold of the two tablets and I cast them from my two hands, and I broke them in front of your eyes” (9:17).
The clear implication of this verse is that Moshe made a conscious decision to break the tablets. After all, he speaks of himself here as “taking hold” of the tablets (“va-etpos”), implying that he intentionally threw them down. This is also the plain meaning of the original account of cheit ha-eigel in Sefer Shemot (32:29), where the Torah tells, “Moshe was angry, and so he cast from his hands the tablets and shattered them beneath the mountain.”
Interestingly, however, the Midrash, in Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (45; see also Midrash Tanchuma, Ki-Tisa, 26), gives a different description of the event:
Moshe took the tablets and was descending, and the text bore itself and Moshe with it. When they saw the drums, dances and [golden] calf, the text fled and flew away from the tablets. They ended up being very heavy for Moshe, and he was unable to bear himself or the tablets, and so he cast them from his hands, and they shattered.
According to this account, the letters of the tablets “flew” away once Moshe saw the people committing the sin of the golden calf. It was the lettering that had “carried” the heavy stones, and without them, the stones became too heavy for Moshe. It thus emerges that Moshe did not, according to this view, throw the tablets, but rather dropped them.
The likely motivation for this surprising opinion is the question of how Moshe could permit himself to shatter the tablets which God had prepared and given him to bring to the people as a sign of the covenant. Although the Gemara (Shabbat 87a) says that God emphatically approved of Moshe’s decision to break the tablets, Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer seems to have disagreed, and felt that God would not have approved of such an audacious reaction to the people’s sin. It therefore explains that Moshe did not decide to throw the tablets to the ground, but rather dropped them.
The question then becomes how to reconcile this opinion with the Torah’s description of Moshe throwing the tablets, and Moshe’s own account of his “taking hold” of the tablets and casting them to the ground. This question is briefly addressed by the Rashbam, in his commentary to Sefer Shemot (32:19), where he writes, “When he saw the calf, he became weak, and had no strength, and he threw them away from him a bit, so that they would not hurt his feet when they fall.” Like Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, the Rashbam explains that Moshe did not actually decide to break the luchot, but rather dropped them because they became too heavy. He writes that the verse speaks of Moshe throwing the tablets because as he dropped them, he sent them in front of him so they would not fall on his feet. According to the Rashbam, Moshe indeed dropped the luchot, but he managed to throw them in front of him on their way down to save himself from injury.
The Rashbam does not elaborate on why Moshe suddenly felt “weak,” but we may assume that he refers to the disappointment he experienced upon seeing how far Benei Yisrael had fallen. Moshe’s enthusiasm, recognizing the singular importance of this moment, when he brings the people the symbol of their newly-forged covenant with God, had fueled his energy and strength, enabling him to carry the heavy stone tablets. But once he saw what had become of the people, his enthusiasm and determination were instantly replaced by frustration and angst. He was then no longer able to carry the weight of the tablets, and he dropped them. Quite possibly, this is Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer’s intent, as well, in describing the letters “flying” from the stone. Perhaps, this does not mean that the stones actually became heavier, but rather that Moshe’s excitement over the significance of the message engraved on the tablets disappeared upon seeing the people’s conduct, and so the stones became too heavy to handle. His disappointment compromised his strength, and so he dropped the tablets.
If so, then the Midrash here conveys the message that passion and determination expand our capabilities. Heavy burdens become manageable when we are fueled by energy and enthusiasm. If we are determined to achieve the end goal, we are far better equipped to overcome the challenges that need to be overcome to get there. Setbacks can deflate us and compromise our determination, and when this happens, the task seems too “heavy,” too difficult for us to handle. If we maintain our zeal and enthusiasm even in the face of disappointment, we will find ourselves capable of achieving more ambitious goals than we might otherwise think.