What was the greatest feat Moses accomplished over his lifetime?

Defying a mighty dictator? Performing history’s most celebrated miracles? Liberating an entire people from slavery? Forging them into a wise and brave nation? Receiving the Torah from G‑d on Mount Sinai? Putting up with all the kvetching and stubbornness of his people for 40 years in the Sinai Desert?

Rashi, the most classic of Jewish commentators, tells us “none of the above.” Moses’s Moses’s greatest feat was also his most outrageous.greatest feat was not receiving the Torah, but shattering its tablets.

Here are the last lines of the Five Books of Moses:

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom G‑d knew face to face, as manifested by all the signs and wonders which G‑d had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land, and all the strong hand and all the great sights, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.1

Now here’s how Rashi reads that:

And all the strong hand: This refers to his receiving the Torah on the stone tablets with his hands.

And all the great sights: This refers to the miracles and mighty deeds in the great and awesome wilderness.

Before the eyes of all Israel: This refers to how his heart lifted him to smash the tablets before their eyes, as it is said, “and I shattered them before your eyes”2

And the Holy One Blessed is He gave His approval, as Scripture states, “which you shattered” God said to Moses: “Well done for shattering them!”3

Rashi, of course, isn’t making this up. Almost everything he writes is culled from rabbinic tradition before him—in this case, Talmud and Sifri.

But why here?

Here we’re at the culmination of the entire Torah. How do we end? Not with mention of the giving of the Torah, but with Moses’s act of shattering it.

Irony aside, there’s a Talmudic dictum regarding concluding words, one to which Rashi is quite sensitive: “Everything goes according to the concluding words”—and therefore, “always finish on a good note.”4

Rashi, if you have to bring this up, couldn’t you just arrange the words a little differently to end on something more pleasant?

Apparently not. Apparently, to Rashi’s taste, this is the most exquisite conclusion imaginable—not just to conclude the praise of Moses, but to conclude the Torah he transcribed.

Which means that we must say two things:

1. If you want to know the greatness of Moses, think “shattering tablets.”

2. If you want to know what Torah is really all about, think “shattered tablets.”

Absolute Desire

So what is Torah all about?

The answer would seem quite simple. The word “Torah” means “instructions.”5 Torah contains the instructions that the Creator of the Universe wants carried out. Torah is about what G‑d wants done with His world.

Rashi makes that clear at the beginning of his commentary. He writes that the Torah only really gets started with the first instance of instructions to the Israelites in Egypt —to roast and eat a lamb on the night of the fifteenth of the month of Nisan, the night before they were to leave Egypt.6 Everything else up to that point and all stories that follow are there to provide context.7

You might ask, “But isn’t everything that exists something that the Creator wants to happen? After all, if He didn’t want it in His universe, what’s it doing here?”

True. But desire comes in layers.

Imagine the universe as a movie set. On a movie set, there’s all sorts of props. The producer wants them there. But the movie is not about the props. It’s about what’s supposed to happen with those props.

Here too, “In the beginning, G‑d created the heavens and the earth”—that’s the props. There Torah is best described as primal, unadulterated, divine desire. has to be a backdrop. The same with Pharaoh and the Exodus. Props.

But “Eat roasted lamb before leaving Egypt”—that’s the drama. The inner meaning behind all else.

If you ask, “Why does the sun rise in the morning and set at night?” I can answer, “So we can carry out the Torah’s mitzvah to recite the Sh’ma Yisrael when the sun rises and when it sets. The sun is a prop. The Sh’ma is the drama.

But what if you ask, “Why does He want the Sh’ma Yisrael recited when the sun rises and when it sets?” Then I’m stuck. If I give you a reason, like, “So people will remember He exists and there’s only one of Him”—then you’ll ask, “Why does He need people to know that? Why create people in the first place? Why create anything at all?”

In other words, just like the buck stops at some point, at some point there are no longer any answers. There are no needs. No reason anything should be at all. At some point there must have been an initial perfectly free choice to desire something or other—because otherwise nothing would be here.

The lack of reason doesn’t mean the desire is any less real. On the contrary—reason mitigates the intensity of desire. Primal, raw and simple desires are incomparably stronger, more resolute and resilient than secondary, reasoned and complex desires. The less a desire must rely upon external or even internal factors, the more resolute it will be. So that the ultimate, absolute and intransigent desire is that which is free of any scaffolding whatsoever.8

All living organisms want to survive and propagate. Why? Because they are living organisms. It’s a primal drive, and therefore a most unstoppable force.

All human beings have a territorial imperative. The Talmud says, “A human being is not complete without his own territory.” You might go your entire life never realizing that this desire is within you. But once released, it takes over your entire being.

An absolutely free choice is of absolute intensity.

Yet even these instinctual desires, as raw and primal as they may be, still have a cause. It’s because I am a human being that I desire my own space—such is the makeup of our species. It's because I am an organism that I desire to live. It's because I am a father that I love my children. It's because I am a writer that I need to write.

The only one capable of an absolutely autonomous desire is the Absolute Existence we call G‑d. With Him, there's no because. He has no form or nature that demands things be this way or that way or that anything should exist at all. Whatever does emerge out of that absolute and primal state is purely through His agency, His absolutely free choice.

An absolutely free choice, untied to any reason whatsoever, is of absolute intensity. You can’t buy it off with an imitation, no matter how close. You can’t ignore details—because the details are just as absolute as the whole. It won’t ever change, because when there’s no reason involved there’s no reason to change. And the One who made this choice is 100% invested in it—because it’s 100% His choice.

What was that primal choice? The 613 mitzvahs. Everything else, the sun, the moon and every galaxy out there—all that somehow logically follows out of the initial desire for Torah.

Rashi again: “When it comes to mitzvahs, G‑d says, ‘It’s pleasing when My will is done.’” Period.

And in this grand drama of His will, played by a cast It must be that Moses sensed something yet more primal within G‑d’s desire for all these instructions.of infinite creatures, who are we?

Just someone to carry out His will. More props, right?

So it would seem. Except that if so, the conclusion of the Torah is all wrong. Moses’s paradigmatic feat would have to be delivering the tablets to the people. Definitely not shattering them.

It must be that Moses sensed something yet more primal within G‑d’s desire for all these instructions. Something that a voice from heaven could not say; something left for him to reveal. And it was manifested in a flash of inspiration that brought him to shatter the most sacred objects that ever entered space-time.

Look at Rashi’s words once again: “…his heart lifted him to shatter the tablets…”

To understand that, we need to better understand the role of Moses. If, after all, he is a messenger of G‑d, shattering the message does not seem to belong in his profile.

The Feminine Energy of Moses

Look in Is Rosh Hashanah a Patriarchal Holiday for a glimpse of the sweeping explanatory power of the male-female dynamic described in Torah. It’s in the receptive powers of the female that both male and female discover their true essence, the point at which they are one.

As we sing when welcoming Shabbat, “The final act was in thought from the beginning.”9 In the final act of reception is revealed a hidden point that lies before the beginning of the transmission.

In the transmission of Torah, G‑d plays the male role and Moses the female. The job of Moses is not just to receive G‑d’s word and deliver it to the people. It is to draw out the essence of those words. To bring out of Such is the nature of communication: The essence of a thing is lost long before the actual transmission begins.G‑d that which otherwise would never be spoken.

Such is the nature of communication, whether it be of great ideas or inspired visions. The essence of a thing is already lost long before the actual transmission begins.

Think of the last time you had a great inspiration and wanted to deliver it to others. Frustrating, wasn’t it? You were so excited, but when you spoke, they just nodded their heads, perhaps a little amused, perhaps somewhat bewildered, grasping to understand what exactly is so exciting about all this.

And perhaps you too thought back after the experience and kicked yourself, wondering, “Yes, what was so exciting?”

Because that’s what almost always gets lost—the soul of the thing that makes it so exciting.

“Nothing is higher than delight,” says the ancient Book of Formation.10 At the core of every inspired vision, beyond its content and its structure, there lies a certain delight, a pleasure that renders it beautiful in the eye of its beholder. That delight is what makes it alive, meaningful, and exciting.

But as you prepare to capture that beauty in the weavings of your mind, that delight slips out through the netting. And that explains why the core of everything that is important to us remains buried in our pre-conscious.

Until a receptive soul perceives it from the outside. And whisks away the covers.

A musician struggles to bring the song he hears in his heart into the music he plays before an audience. Perhaps they enjoy the music. But it’s just another song, not the music his soul has already forgotten.

The search for that inner song continues for all of our lives. No one truly knows why he chases after the things he chases, does the things he does, says what he says, lives how he lives. At his last breath in this world, he still does not know.

Somewhere, but not in any place that can be located by its coordinates or described by its features, that inner melody quietly sings, a delightful knowledge of who he really is and why he must be that way. Yet as thick honey refuses to pour through a spigot, so that sweet song chooses stillness as its palace, blissfully immune to the busy cogs and wheels of mind and emotion. So that No one truly knows why he chases after the things he desires, does the things he does, says what he says, lives the way he lives.on the outside is a torn individual, unable to make peace with himself, obsessed with the loss of something precious, something essential to his very being, yet not knowing what it is.

The musician needs to believe in his audience and believe that his audience believes in him. Then, in his performance, he will discover his own soul. And the lonely man perhaps will be fortunate to find a partner in life who will believe in him and enable him to bring that inner vision to the surface.

All of us need a mirror in someone outside of ourselves. Someone to release our spark inside.

I had an uncle who was an accomplished actor. I asked him once how good actors handle auditions. I had a job interview coming up, and I figured an actor’s audition is the paradigm of all job interviews.

Seems my hunch was right.

“Mediocre actors,” he explained, ”memorize the script, listen to the instructions of the director, and then carry out exactly what was handed to them. The director says, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’”

“Good actors memorize the script, listen to the instructions of the director, think about it, and then pull off something totally unexpected. The director jumps out of his chair and yells, ‘Yes! That’s just how I envisioned it!’”

We all need actors like that to enter into our lives.

Even the enlightened master who has a vision to communicate, he too requires a perceptive student. Someone who believes in his teacher. Someone who understands that there is something more here which is not being said.

Such a student listens to his master and puzzles for days on end, perhaps for forty years, “Why did he say it that way? Why did he choose those words? What is hidden inside here?”

If he would ask, the master himself may not know. But the student senses The master may not hear the depth of his own words, but the student distils from them the essence that was left behind.that, somehow, that silent essence that has bypassed the teacher’s conscious mind has nevertheless snuck out within the anomalies of his choice of words and phrasing.

So the master may not hear the depth of his own words, but the student distils from them the essence that was left behind. Once that is made present, everything shines. He becomes “a student who makes his teacher wise.”11

Take Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. He testified that he never taught a word of Torah that he did not receive from his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai.12 Yet, when he spoke, Rabbi Yochanan himself was startled, amazed, and enlightened.13

We saw much the same with our teacher, Reb Yoel, who served as the “oral scribe” (meturgamen is the classic term) for the Rebbe. There were many instances when people complained that he had entered into the transcript entire ideas where the Rebbe had said only a few words. “I sensed the Rebbe wanted to say that,” he explained. And the Rebbe reviewed the transcript and agreed.

So too, the Rebbe himself, as well as every master student of Torah through all the generations, their craft was to feel deep within the soul of the nuanced words of their masters, even to the very words that Moses received from G‑d, and mine from them precious gems of new insights and practical applications of Torah.

In the fabulous imagery of the Talmudic sages:

When Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, who is preventing You from giving the Torah without these little crowns?

God said to him: There is a man who is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name; he is destined to derive from each and every thorn of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halakhot. It is for his sake that the crowns must be added to the letters of the Torah.

Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, show him to me.

God said to him: Step back. Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row in Rabbi Akiva’s study hall and did not understand what they were saying. Moses’ strength waned, as he thought his Torah knowledge was deficient.

When Rabbi Akiva arrived at the discussion of one matter, his students said to him: My teacher, from where do you derive this? Rabbi Akiva said to them: It is a halacha transmitted to Moses from Sinai.

When Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this too was part of the Torah that he had received.14

And so it was with Moses himself when he heard from God, “Sanctify for me every firstborn.”15 He didn’t simply repeat those words. He delivered a talk providing context and meaning. He explained that sanctifying a firstborn didn’t mean what you might think it means. It means redeeming the child through a contribution.

“Take the heads of the people and hang them up against the sun.”16

Moses assembled the sages and they judged the people.

“Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” Moses explained that G‑d meant monetary compensation.

In preparation for the Ten Commandments, God said, “Prepare the people for the third day.”17

Moses told the people to prepare for three days and then, on the fourth, they would hear from G‑d. He added a day. Because He knew that’s what the people needed and, if so, that’s what G‑d wants.

When G‑d told Moses that the people had made a golden calf in his absence and concluded, “And now, let Me be that I may destroy them!”18 Moses thought, “Am I holding onto Him that he has to ask my permission?”19

And he understood that in truth he was being asked to argue on his people’s behalf. Which he did. And G‑d forgave them. Because G‑d wanted to forgive. But it took a Moses to know that.

Yet the most pristine and vital elicitation of inner divine intent was not to come until Moses descended from the mountain and beheld his people and their golden calf with his own eyes.

Moses Makes a Choice

It would be absurd to imagine Moses asking permission for what he was about to do. “Master of the Universe! You’ve handed me these two divine stones bearing Your own inscription of Your will and wisdom for humankind. Nothing such as these has ever before entered Your world. And You have commanded me to deliver them to these people.”

“But now, considering the state of these people, how about I just shatter them instead?”


So? So he just did it.

And the Director leaped up and exclaimed, “Yes! That’s it! Right on, Moses!”

But how did he know?

Put yourself in the sandals of Moses. You’ve got these two divine blocks of stone in your hands, encapsulating your experience of forty days and nights of the richest divine wisdom and enlightenment ever experienced by any being. And it has an address: these people.

And you have your people before you. Your beloved people for whom you risked everything even when you were a young prince in Egypt.

But you can’t have both. Delivery of these tablets meant the covenant would be sealed. In the current state of these people, so would be their fate.

Which do you choose? Your beloved Torah or these people of yours?

Look again at Rashi: “His heart lifted him to shatter the tablets.”

Meaning: A place swelled up in Moses’s heart where there was nothing but these people. Where all those forty days and all they contained were meaningless before his love for them. It was all for them, after all, that this meeting of his with the One Above had been arranged. Without them, what use were these laws?

Fine, don’t deliver the tablets. Hide them somewhere. Bury them. But shatter them deliberately and irreparably? Are they entirely of no value whatsoever now?

Yes. That was just the point.

Another Midrash, one cited by Rashi many chapters earlier:20

A parable of a king who went off to distant lands, leaving his betrothed bride with the maid servants. The maids were promiscuous, which created a bad reputation for the bride.

The bride’s agent then took the initiative to tear up the marriage contract. He said, “If the king declares that she must be put to death, I will tell him that she has not yet become his wife…

By citing this Midrash, Rashi has already answered our question. Of course the tablets needed to be shattered. Where there is no bride, no marriage, the marriage contract does not exist.

But we need to go deeper to get to the real sweetness of this point. Back to the beginning of things:

Deep and Simple

An ancient sacred writing, “The Book of Hiddenness,” incorporated within the Zohar, speaks of a “beginning that cannot be known.”21

In one of the very few writings we have from the master Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, “the Arizal,” he explains:

There is a place so deep, so essential, it has no address, there are no coordinates by which it can be found, it can only be known as “the beginning that cannot be known”—because it exists before knowing, before anything at all. And yet it is the catalyst of all being.22

Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch explained further:23

In that place, there are no desires, no pull or push in any direction whatsoever. As knowing does not yet exist, so desire has yet to emerge. Desire has no meaning within the context of that place. There is only the bliss of simple absolute being.

It is in that place that the most inner spark of the human soul is rooted, a spark that remains pure and innocent even as it descends within the raging seas of a cold, brutal and confusing world. For that spark, the opposites of light and darkness have no effect, for it transcends all of these.

That precious spark is the place of G‑d’s delight in this world, the place where He most desires to dwell, only because there He sees His own very essence and being. So that in that union of Creator and created, all becomes one.

If so, His desire for Torah, for mitzvahs, for teshuvah and beautiful deeds, all orbit about His delight in this soul. They are the means G‑d has chosen to bring the beauty of this soul into the open so that His presence can dwell within her.

But within the intensity of that serene bliss itself, Torah and its mitzvahs have yet to exist—which explains why Moses shattered the tablets rather than sequestering them away.

When divine desire did emerge, that unknowable beginning point was lost. As we said, the essence is always lost even before transmission begins. It took the heart of Moses and the repentance of the people to awaken it and draw it into the Torah and into our world. And so it is reawakened every year on Yom Kippur—a day when we are lifted back into that space of primal delight in our souls, beyond Torah, beyond mitzvahs.

From there, like a geyser bursting out from the subterranean magma, a new version of that desire for mitzvahs rushes forth, one enriched and saturated with that primal bliss, so that all that was missing is filled, and all that went wrong is repaired.

In the most simple words possible, from the text of Tanna Dvei Eliyahu (somewhat paraphrased):

I met a man who knew only the written Torah and he asked me, “Rabbi! I know there are two things G‑d holds more precious than anything else, Torah and Israel, the people to whom Torah was given. But which comes first?”

I answered him, “My child, the world says that Torah comes first. But I say that the people come first.”

He asked me, “What is precious about the Torah?”

I answered, “Imagine a king who has an elderly servant who teaches his children how to be good people. Could there be anything more precious to the king than this servant?”24

We are not about the Torah. The Torah is about us.

We are not about the Torah. The Torah is about us.

You know that paper with the scribblings on the refrigerator door? It is not about what this child has done, but, quite simply, that “My child made that.”

Tablets 2.0

In the end, what did Moses accomplish by shattering the tablets?

Everything. When Moses descended again from the mountain with Tablets 2.0, the Torah now came with its very essence included.

That day was Yom Kippur. So now we have a day when we all can experience that same blissful place of unconditional love and acceptance that swelled up in Moses’s heart. From there comes forgiveness and an unbreakable relationship between us and G‑d. With Tablets 2.0, forgiveness is written into the system.

Then there’s the celebration of this re-giving of Torah on Simchat Torah, a day we rejoice in the oneness of Torah and the Jewish people.

This is all vital in our understanding of Torah. Because sometimes it might seem that some mitzvah or prohibition does not take your welfare into consideration. Why can’t I eat the food I like to eat? Why can’t I marry the person I want to marry?

But when you understand that at the essence of Torah lies G‑d’s delight in your soul, it’s obvious that this is only a short-sighted delusion. It’s impossible that Torah should withhold from you any good. It’s all good. Just way better than anything you can imagine.

Personally, I find the most valuable takeaway to be the most practical one. That now we all have to be like Moses. We have to know that Torah is first and foremost about the personal lives of our fellow human beings. And we have to act accordingly. If that’s missing, everything is missing.

When, at a certain point in life, I started my own business, I asked advice from a dear mentor and sage, Rabbi Abba Paltiel.

He said, “Tzvi, just remember that the only thing that’s real in this world is the people. There are no businesses, no policies, no protocols, no buildings, no institutions. There’s only people. If you do great things, but it doesn’t work for the people, you did nothing.”

Our principal business in life is the business of Torah and mitzvahs. You can learn the entire Torah and repeat any page of Talmud by heart, fulfill mitzvahs all day and say your prayers like a tzadik. But if the main thing is missing—some sensitivity to what’s going on in the other guy’s heart, an ability to sit with others and enjoy their company, to put your own opinions aside for the sake of everybody getting along—then it’s not just that something is missing. It’s simply not Torah.

Shatter that playbook and start again.

For all the ways of this Torah that Moses delivered to us “are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”25

Based on Likutei Sichot, vol. 34, p. 217 (B’rachah).