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Plan B and the Second Tablets

Have you ever experienced a situation where things did not go according to plan? Not in a small way. In a big way. And while at first we might have experienced disappointment and sadness, after some time passes we realize that we would not go back to Plan A. Instead, we find ourselves feeling blessed to be on the unexpected adventure of Plan B. Life surprises and delights us when we look back and realize that we would not change a thing. The holiday of Shavuot is one such celebration—of one of the momentous times in our people’s history when the sequence of events as they unfolded in real time did not unfold according to plan. It was in fact a total and complete deviation from what was “supposed” to occur.

This coming Sunday, May 16, marks the anniversary of when our ancestors were given the Torah at Mount Sinai over 3,000 years ago. Upon arriving at the Sinai desert, Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Mount Sinai. God told Moshe that if Bnei Yisrael obey Him and keeps his brit, we will be to Him a “treasured possession among all the peoples,” and a “kingdom of priests” and a holy nation (Shemot 19:5-6).

Upon hearing what God had told Moshe, the people unanimously accepted the Torah and answered “naaseh v’nishma,” “everything God has said we will do.” After three days of preparation, preceded by smoke, thunder, lightning, quaking, fire and a loud shofar blast, God proclaimed the 10 commandments. Moshe ascended the mountain again, this time for 40 days and 40 nights, to receive the luchot, the tablets, containing the aseret hadibrot, the ten commandments, and the entire Torah, which he then imparted to the Jewish people.

During this time on the mountain, God taught Moshe the entire Torah and gave Moshe the luchot, which were written by God Himself, “ketuvim b’etzbah Elokim,” “written with the finger of God” (Shemot 31:18). As Moshe prepared to descend the mountain, God informed him that the people have built and were worshipping a golden calf. The pesukim relate that Moshe descended the mountain carrying the luchot, and upon seeing the idol worship, threw them to the ground, breaking them.

The sin of the chet haegel, the Golden Calf, was not part of God’s plan when He redeemed us from slavery in Egypt, and it set a new course of history into motion. Following the sin of the Golden Calf, a series of events with Moshe begging God’s forgiveness took place, leading up to God forgiving us and Moshe hewing a new set of luchot to replace the original broken set.

The Beis Halevi, in drush 18 in his sefer on Torah, explores the intriguing variations between the first luchot and the second luchot and the impact of the chet haegel on our nation. Torah—specifically the written Torah and the Oral Torah—would be forever changed to accommodate the needs of our people, who were now routed to a new and different path of galut, or future exile. Rav Solovieitchik analyzes the striking differences between the luchot: While the first set of luchot were written by God Himself with God’s finger and were God’s work, and the inscription was God’s inscription,” “v’haluchot maaseh Elokim hema v’hamichtav michtav Elokim huh” (Shemot 32:16), the second set of luchot were written by Moshe, “ktav lecha et hadevarim ha’eileh,” “Inscribe these words for yourself” (Shemot 34:27). On the first set of luchot, the words were “inscribed from both their sides; on one side and on the other side they were inscribed,” “ketuvim mishnei evreihem mizeh umizeh heim ketuvim,” (Shemot 32:15), while on the second luchot the commandments were only inscribed on one side. The words on the first set were engraved “charut al haluchut,” while the second set was not.

The Yalkut on Parshat Ki Tisa elucidates how Moshe could have “flung” the luchot upon observing Bnei Yisrael engaging in idol worship. The midrash shares that when Moshe descended the mountain and observed the sin, the letters flew off the tablets, causing the luchot to become heavy so that the tablets fell out of Moshe’s hands and broke. The Beis Halevi explains that once the sin of the Golden Calf occurred, future exile was decreed on our people. It was known that the other nations would one day rule over us and attempt to take the Torah from us; therefore, once the sin had been committed and exile was decreed, the first tablets were broken and God decided to not give us all of the Torah in written word. Instead, God kept parts of the Torah orally given, so that we would be protected and distinguished from the other nations during exile.

This interpretation is further supported by the fact that 10 commandments were engraved on the first tablets, or charut, which is translated as “free.” At the time the first tablets were given, prior to the sin, all of Torah could have been written down, and we would have been free from exile. When the letters flew off the luchot, according to the midrash, the luchot became heavy because the letters contained the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah is critical to understanding, observing and fulfilling the written Torah. Without it, the Torah can’t be “held” or observed.

The Beis Halevi explains the significance of another intriguing difference between the first and second luchot: Only by the second tablets is Moshe’s skin and face described as being “radiant,” “ki keren ohr pnei Moshe” (Shemot 34:35). Once it became a reality that the Oral Torah was not to be written on the second luchot, Moshe himself became the klaf, or parchment, that held all of Oral Torah following the sin of the Golden Calf, to prevent shichecha, or forgetfulness, of the Oral Torah. This explains why the pesukim state that Moshe’s skin and face were radiant. God’s change of plan in giving us the Torah, from written to oral, enables us to reach an even higher level of spiritual achievement and closeness to God.

When we left Egypt, we were saved not due to our own merit, but because God Himself extricated and freed us. Because it was a redemption that we did not work for or earn, we had not grown enough to be able to sustain being free. We quickly fell from these heights with the sin of the Golden Calf. Once the sin occurred, our future path was forever altered. With the second set of luchot, toil in learning was introduced. The first luchot, because it included the Oral Torah, would mean there would not be forgetfulness and distraction in learning Torah. But with the second set, we must add extra effort daily so as not to forget Torah. Torah learning post the sin of the Golden Calf requires daily exertion, ameilut v’yagea yomam v’laila. It is through this constant learning of Torah that we are able to connect and grow closer to God.

At times we may find ourselves in situations where life has not gone according to plan. But with the understanding gained from studying the second luchot, we can see that pursuing new, unexpected paths leads us to achieve even loftier and unanticipated heights. It is times like these that give us the greatest opportunities for growth. That is the lesson of the second luchot: We can take the very things that were once perceived as setbacks and harness them to embark on new untried paths that bring us closer to God and to living the life we wish for ourselves. With the insights learned from second luchot, we discover that Plan B really is more desirable than Plan A and paves the way for even greater fulfillment.


Alanna Apfel is the founder and patient advocate at AA Insurance Advocacy, which helps therapy patients, individuals, couples and children, save thousands of dollars annually on their out-of-network mental-health therapy bills. In the months that AA Insurance Advocacy has been advocating on behalf of patients, clients have collected anywhere from $5,000 to $45,000 a year in reimbursements, depending on the cost and frequency of therapy. If your preferred therapist doesn’t take your health insurance, we can help negotiate with your plan to cover your out-of-pocket therapy costs. For further information, please contact [email protected].

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