Why did Moses break the tablets?
I heard that his reason was the Torah-mandated capital punishment for idolatry. If he would give the Torah to the Jews at this point, they would be condemned to death, so he instead broke the tablets to save the Jews. Is this correct? Are there other reasons too?
The midrashim and various biblical commentaries suggest many reasons to explain Moses’ action. The following are a few of them:
1) The explanation which you wrote is indeed found in the Midrash. Rashi, the foremost commentator on the Torah, quotes a similar explanation:
This can be compared to a king who went abroad, and left his betrothed with the maidservants. Because of the immoral behavior of the maidservants, she acquired a bad reputation. Her “bridesman” (the person appointed to defend the bride should any problems arise) arose and tore up her marriage contract. He said, ‘If the king decides to kill her, I will say to him, “She is not yet your wife.”’
2) Another explanation quoted by Rashi is that Moses made the following calculation:
He said [to himself]: If [in regard to] the Passover sacrifice, which is [merely] one of the commandments, the Torah said: “No estranged one may partake of it”—[now that] the entire Torah is here [i.e., the Ten Commandments include the whole Torah], and all the Israelites are apostates, shall I give it to them?
3) A classic explanation is that the tablets, two large sapphire stones, weighed too much to be possibly carried by a single human being; instead, the divinely etched letters engraved within them miraculously lightened them, enabling Moses to carry the tablets. When the letters “saw” the golden calf which the Jewish people had made, they were revolted and “flew” out of the tablets, back to their divine source—leaving Moses with a burden he could not bear, and which he therefore dropped.
4) Others explain that Moses broke the tablets in order to discourage G‑d from implementing His plan to annihilate the Jewish people for their sin, and to recreate a new chosen nation from Moses and his descendants (see Exodus 32:10). Upon breaking the tablets, he told G‑d, “Now I am a sinner just like them. If You decide to eradicate them, destroy me as well.”
For further insight on this topic, see Priceless National Treasures.
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson