The "punch line" is a common device by which to lend import and prominence to an idea: a speaker or writer will position the crux of his message, or its most emphatic point, in his closing words. The Torah, too, employs this device, and a general rule of Torah law and exegesis is that Everything goes by the ending (Talmud, Berachot 12a).

It is therefore most surprising to discover that, according to the greatest of Torah commentators, the Torah's own closing words describe what seems to have been a decidedly inauspicious moment for the Torah, its people, and its greatest teacher.

The last chapter of the Torah (Deuteronomy 34:1-12) describes the last day of Moses' physical life. Indeed, this is a most apt "ending" for the "Torah of Moses," since Jewish tradition regards the moment of a righteous person's passing as the high point of his or her life--the point at which "all his deeds, teachings and works" attain their ultimate fulfillment and realization. But then, after describing Moses' survey of the Holy Land from the summit of Mount Nebo, his passing, and burial, the Torah's final verses recount the highlights of Moses' life and his greatest achievements:

And there arose not since a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom G‑d knew face to face; [who performed] all the signs and wonders which G‑d sent [Moses] to do in the land of Egypt... [who equaled] that mighty hand, those great awesome things, which Moses did before the eyes of all Israel.

To what deed of Moses does the Torah refer with its closing words, "which Moses did before the eyes of all Israel"? Employing a method of Torah interpretation known as gezeirah shavah ("identical phraseology") Rashi, the greatest of commentators on Torah, sees these words as an allusion to the breaking of the Tablets, which Moses describes in a previous chapter as something which he did "before the eyes" of Israel:

That which Moses did before the eyes of all Israel--that his heart emboldened him to break the Tablets before their eyes, as it is written, [I grabbed hold of the two Tablets and threw them from my two hands] and I broke them before your eyes.

No human being is more deeply identified with the Torah than Moses. Remember the Torah of Moses My servant,declares the prophet Malachi, and our sages explain: "Because he gave his life for it, [G‑d's Torah] is called by his name." "Moses our Teacher" we call him, for the very essence of his life was the mission to receive the divine law at Mount Sinai and deliver it to humanity.

It would seem, therefore, that Moses' breaking of the Tablets, however necessary or even desirable it may have been, was antithetical to his role as conveyer of Torah, as well as detrimental to the Torah's own role of serving as G‑d's instruction to humanity. Yet the Torah makes this the final item in its account of Moses' life, as well as its own "ending." In other words, if we assume that indeed "everything goes by the ending," not only is the Torah saying that it regards the breaking of the Tablets as the most important deed of Moses' life, but also that the most important thing it has to say about itself is that it regards the breaking of the Tablets as the most important deed of Moses' life!

The Marriage Contract

There was once a king-relates the Midrash-who went off on a distant journey and left his bride with her maidservants. Because of the promiscuity of the maidservants, rumors began circulating about the kings bride. The king heard of this and wished to kill her. When the brides guardian heard this, he tore up her marriage contract, saying: "Should the king say, 'My wife did such and such,' we shall say to him, 'Shes not your wife yet'" (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 30).

The king in this parable-the Midrash goes on to explain- is G‑d, the bride is the nation of Israel, the corrupt maids are the eirev rav (the "mixed multitude" who had joined the Jewish people at the Exodus and were responsible for the making of the Golden Calf), the bride's guardian is Moses, and the marital contract is the Torah. When G‑d wished to destroy Israel because of their involvement in the worship of the Golden Calf, Moses broke the Tablets upon which G‑d had transcribed the essence of His covenant with them, thereby dissolving the marriage-bond that Israel had allegedly violated and leaving G‑d no grounds on which to punish His brides unfaithfulness.

And this the Torah considers to be Moses highest virtue: his unequivocal loyalty to the Jewish people, a loyalty even greater than his loyalty to the Torah. When the very existence of the Jewish people was threatened, Moses tore up the wedding contract in order to save the bride.

When the existence of Israel was in jeopardy, Moses did not consult with anyone, not even with G‑d. In fact, Moses himself describes that moment as a time when he "grabbed hold" of the Tablets to "break them before your eyes" (Deuteronomy 9:17). Why did Moses have to grab the Tablets if he was already holding them? Says the Midrash:

The Tablets were each six handbreadths long and three handbreadths wide. Moses held two handbreadths [of the Tablets' length], G‑d held two handbreadths, and in between were two handbreadths of space. Moses' hands prevailed, and he grabbed hold of the Tablets and broke them (Midrash Tanchuma, Eikev 11).

It is for this reason that Moses breaking of the Tablets was the greatest deed of his life. In everything else he did, he was acting on a clear mandate from G‑d: G‑d had instructed and empowered him to take the Jews out of Egypt, to split the Red Sea, and to transmit His wisdom and will to humanity. Always it was G‑ds desire that he followed. Here, it was his own initiative. Here, he wrestled with G‑d, "grabbing hold" of the Tablets to save the people of Israel.

In breaking the Tablets, Moses was acting on his own, contrary to his divine mission to deliver G‑ds Torah to the world. In breaking the Tablets, Moses, who could not presume that G‑d would replace the first Tablets with a second pair, was eradicating his very being, his very raison d'être, for the sake of his people.

And Moses did not go off to a corner to carry out the most painful and potentially self-destructive act of his life. He broke the Tablets before the eyes of all Israel—a fact which the Torah repeatedly emphasizes, and then reiterates in its concluding words. For Moses wished to demonstrate to all of Israel, and to all generations to come, the duty of a leader of the Jewish people: to be prepared not only to sacrifice his physical life for his flock, but his very soul and spiritual essence as well.

First Among Firsts

Not only does the Torah record that G‑d endorsed Moses breaking of the Tablets; not only does it proclaim that Moses greatest deed was his placing the preservation of Israel above the integrity of their marriage contract; it also chooses to make this its own culminating message. With its closing words the Torah establishes that it sees its own existence as secondary to the existence of the people of Israel.

The Midrash says it thus:

Two things preceded G‑ds creation of the world: Torah and Israel. Still, I do not know which preceded which. But when Torah states Speak to the Children of Israel..., Command the Children of Israel...-I know that Israel preceded all (Tana Dvei Eliyahu Rabbah chapter 14)

In other words, since the purpose of G‑ds creation of the universe is that the people of Israel should implement His will as outlined in the Torah, the concepts of Israel and Torah both precede the concept of a world in the Creators mind. Yet which is the more deeply rooted idea within the divine consciousness, Torah or Israel? Does Israel exist so that the Torah may be implemented, or does the Torah exist to serve the Jew in the fulfillment of his mission and the realization of his relationship with G‑d?

Says the Midrash: if the Torah describes itself as a communication to Israel, this presumes the concept of Israel as primary to that of Torah. Without the people of Israel to implement it, there cannot be a Torah, since the very idea of a Torah was conceived by the divine mind as a tool to facilitate the bond between G‑d and His people.

Hence, when the Torah speaks of the shattering of the Tablets, it speaks not of its own destruction, but, ultimately, of its preservation: if the breaking of the Tablets saved Israel from extinction, it also saved the Torah from extinction, since the very concept of a Torah is dependent upon the existence of the people of Israel.

From the Lubavitcher Rebbe's talks on Simchat Torah of 5747 (1986) and on other occasions