Parshat Ki Tasa

by Rabbi Josh Buchin: Co-Dean of Students, Jewish Studies Teacher

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses goes up to Mt. Sinai, does not return when expected, and comes down from the mountain to find the Israelites worshiping a golden calf. In response, Moses shatters the first set of the Ten Commandments. But our story does not end there. Although the Israelities, Moses, and God are initially despondent after the first set of Tablets are destroyed, eventually God instructs Moses to create a second set. “God said to Moses: ‘Carve two Tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the Tablets the words that were on the first Tablets, which you shattered’” (Exodus 34:1). In the Babylonian Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic wisdom, our Rabbis use this verse describing God’s instructions to Moses as an opportunity to teach us about the power of mistakes.

According to Reish Lakish in Shabbat 87a, we are to understand the verse from Exodus 34:1 midrashically, through Rabbinic textual interpretation. In this verse, Reish Lakish tells us that we should understand “asher” (which) to mean “Yasher Kochacha” (congratulations) instead. This changes the meaning of the verse from “the first tablets, which you shattered” to something like “congratulations for having broken the first tablets!” In doing so, the Rabbis are instructing us to look at the destruction of the Ten Commandments not as a bad thing, but rather as a moment to be celebrated. 

Why would we view the destruction of the first Ten Commandments, and the Israelites’ worship of the golden calf, as a good thing? Perhaps it is because our tradition is trying to teach us that mistakes are a natural part of life. Even if we haven’t worshiped a golden calf, all of us have made mistakes of some kind or another! But it is through our mistakes that we learn more about ourselves, learn where we need to improve, and ultimately grow in the ways we have to. The Israelites had to break the first set of Tablets to learn how meaningful and valuable the Ten Commandments were and how sacred their Covenant with God was. 

The mistakes we make present us with opportunities to improve. Not only that, but our mistakes form part of the tapestry of who we are. This is why, according to our tradition, the broken Tablets were not buried but rather were kept in the Ark of the Covenant alongside the second set of the Ten Commandments and carried with the Israelites throughout their journey in the wilderness.

Rather than avoiding mistakes or being ashamed about making them, let’s learn from this week’s Torah portion and embrace mistakes! Whether it’s an interpersonal mistake or a mistake on a math test, let’s recognize these mistakes as opportunities to be better and grow. After all, everyone makes mistakes and like the Israelities, we will always have a chance to try again and do better.