Moses broke the Tablets.

He didn’t do it because he wanted to, but because he needed to.

The Jews were dancing around the golden calf and acting immorally. G‑d was about to punish them for their sins, so Moses stepped in to save the nation.

He was coming down theMoses stepped in to save the nation mountain, carrying G‑d’s gifts, ready to teach and preach the commandments he’d just learned, but he had to pause all that to take care of business.

He smashed the tablets, chastised the entire nation, punished the guilty parties, and helped everyone repent. He stayed down at the base of the mountain with us until he was convinced that we’d learnt our lesson and would never sin like that again, and then headed back up to plead with G‑d for forgiveness. G‑d finally acceded and gave him a set of replacement Tablets, inscribed again with the 10 Commandments.

Aside from forgiving the Jews and giving them the second set of Tablets, G‑d also gave Moses personal validation: You did the right thing. You are the faithful shepherd and it was your actions, in the nick of time, that averted the tragedy. G‑d commanded him to “carve a new set and inscribe the same words as were on the first set, asher shibarta – that you broke.”1 These last words are creatively interpret by commentators to mean, “Yishar kochacho sheshivarta – your strength shall be validated for having broken.”2From this expression comes the familiar Yiddish phrase yasher koach, usually translated as ‘good on you’ or ‘well done’ and often further shortened to the colloquial shkoyach!

But there’s one thing I don’t understand. This validation of Moses’ breaking the Tablets was given only after the commandment to prepare the second set. If Moses was right and his response justified, why didn’t G‑d thank him at the time for his actions? Why did G‑d wait until now, months after the event, to let everyone know that Moses had done the right thing?

Do you want to know why? It’s because every single public figure who ever does anything destructive is nominally doing it for G‑d and the Jewish people. How many times have you seen someone embroiled in a machloket (controversy) convinced that they alone are of pure intention and clear conscience, while their opponents deserve to be punished? Every person who smashes the tablets claims the mantle of righteousness and loudly justifies their decision to get violent.

Sure, there are times when you do have to ‘fight the wars of the L‑rd.’ There are occasions when Judaism needs to be defended and G‑d needs us to rise up on His behalf. We do not prize pacifism per se and very occasionally you do need to break eggs to create a holy omelet.

But which is which? How can the observer be sure who is fighting for G‑d and who’s just making excuses—claiming to be fighting for G‑d but in reality motivated out of spite or petty vindictiveness? Everyone claims the moral high ground, but who’s really thinking about G‑d and not themselves?

In truth, it’s often almost impossible to tell at the time. During the thick of battle there is too much dust and obfuscation to judge. The only sure way is by checking in again after the fact, and observing the fruitsIt's often impossible to tell at the time of the vandal’s actions. Those who claimed to be fighting for G‑d but only ended up in a morass of mutually assured destruction can be retrospectively adjudged to have had impure impulses in the first case, while those whose seemingly destructive actions led to an ultimate peace have conclusively demonstrated that that was their intentions all along.

Whenever you come across someone in the process of destruction but still claiming to be defending G‑d and loudly proclaiming the rightness of their cause, suggest they slow down a bit and consider the likely result of their crusade. A bit of humility would probably not go astray. You don’t want to destroy the village in your efforts to save it. Just remember that if you start off smashing things, there’s a good chance you’ll continue down that path until nothing’s left intact.

Moses broke things, but he also rebuilt. He was no vengeful leader intent on punishment, rather he was a merciful judge who sought sanctity and was willing to risk all to achieve a lasting peace. Now that the second set of Tablets were about to be given, everyone could independently recognize the justice of his path, and it was the time for Moses to receive his well-deserved shkoyach from G‑d on behalf of the entire Jewish nation.