Yesterday, we noted the verse in Parashat Eikev (9:17) in which Moshe describes his shattering of the luchot (stone tablets) that he had received from God, in reaction to seeing Benei Yisrael worship the golden calf. He says: “I took hold of the two tablets and I cast them from my two hands, and I broke them in front of your eyes.”
The question arises as to the meaning of the word “va-etpos” (“I took hold,” or “I grabbed”) in this verse. Moshe was, quite obviously, already holding the tablets as he made his way down the mountain. What, then, does he mean when he speaks of himself “taking hold” of the tablets before throwing them down?
One answer, perhaps, emerges from the approach taken by the Rashbam (to Shemot 32:29) in explaining the shattering of the tablets. As we discussed yesterday, the Rashbam maintained that Moshe did not actually intend to break the tablets, but upon seeing the nation in their disgrace, he became frail, and could no longer carry the luchot, which fell from his arms. The Torah describes Moshe as “throwing” the tablets, the Rashbam explains, because Moshe managed to throw them forward as they slipped from his hands, in order to protect his feet. (As we discussed, the Rashbam’s approach is based partially on Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, 45.) According to this explanation, we could perhaps suggest that “va-etpos” refers to Moshe’s successfully “grabbing” onto the tablets as they fell from his hands so he could send them in front of him, such that they would not fall on his feet.
Regardless, a number of other explanations have been offered, following the conventional understanding, that Moshe consciously shattered the luchot. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his Torah commentary, explains by noting that two verses earlier, Moshe says that he came down from atop Mount Sinai with the stone tablets “al shetei yadai” – “on my two hands.” Moshe speaks of himself as having been completely passive with respect to the tablets. He was not actually holding them; it was as though they rested on his hands as he descended from the mountaintop. His role with regard to the luchot was merely as a conduit, delivering them to the people. It was only upon seeing the worship of the golden calf that he took an active role, intervening in, and in fact disrupting, the process of transmission by taking hold of the luchot and shattering them.
This question is addressed also by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala. He cites the account in Avot De-Rabbi Natan (chapter 2) that upon seeing the golden calf, Moshe started retreating, moving away from the people. The nation’s elders ran after him and took hold of the tablets, but Moshe overpowered them and wrested the tablets from their hands. He then threw them to the ground. According to this account, he word “va-etpos” refers to Moshe’s grabbing the luchot from the elders who had seized them from him.
Rav Mecklenberg then cites another theory claiming that after God had informed Moshe of the nation’s worship of the golden calf, before he started coming down the mountain, Moshe initially put down the tablets, intending to leave them at the mountaintop. He figured that since the people did not deserve the tablets, the symbol of their special covenant with God, there was no purpose in bringing them down to the nation. But he then decided it would be preferable to bring the tablets and then shatter them in view of the people, to show them that they forfeited their special relationship with the Almighty as a result of their sin. Thus, Moshe says that he “took hold” of the tablets which he had previously put down on the ground on the mountaintop. (The difficulty with this explanation is that Moshe speaks of himself “taking hold” of the tablets only after he came down the mountain and saw the people worshipping the calf.)
Rav Mecklenberg then offers his own, particularly novel, explanation of this verse. He cites a verse in Mishlei (30:9) in which King Shlomo expresses his fear that if he would become poor, he might then steal, and thus “tafasti shem Elokai” – he would be defiling the Name of God. The root t.f.s. can thus denote not merely “grab,” but also “defile.” Rav Mecklenberg proceeds to present a creative explanation for the connection between these two meanings, suggesting that one “defiles” by seizing control over something which he should not be controlling. Regardless, the verse in Mishlei provides us with a prooftext establishing that t.f.s. can refer to defilement, thus allowing for a new reading of the word “va-etpos” in Moshe’s description of his shattering of the luchot. Moshe was emphasizing to the people that because of the gravity of their sin, he made the decision to “defile” the luchot, to shatter the sacred stones, in order to show the people that they had become unworthy of the covenant that they had forged with the Almighty.