Chapter 30

[12] When you take a census: The Jewish people are counted four times in the Torah:

  1. when they left Egypt (Nisan 15, 2448),1
  2. when Moses descended Mount Sinai (Tishrei 11, 2449),2
  3. a month after the Tabernacle was erected (Iyar 1, 2449),3 and
  4. in the last year of their journey in the desert (early 2488).4

The common denominator of the last three is that they were all part of repentance processes:

  • The purpose of the second census was to ascertain how many Jews remained after the plague they suffered for having made the Golden Calf. The money collected in this census was used in the construction of the Tabernacle, which itself was an atonement for the incident of the Golden Calf.
  • The poll-tax of the third census was used for the communal offerings, which included sin-offerings.
  • The purpose of the fourth census was to ascertain how many Jews remained after the plague they suffered in consequence of the incident at Shitim.

Significantly, the idiom for "taking a census" in all three cases literally means "uplifting the head." This implies that, in some way, repentance elevates the head of the penitent.

To explain: Our souls animate our bodies and act through them; when part of our soul is manifest in a particular part of our body, it is said to be "clothed" within it. Thus, the soul's intellect is "clothed" within the brain, its emotions are "clothed" within the heart, its senses are "clothed" within the sensory organs, and its powers of action are "clothed" within the various limbs of action.

There is also a part of the soul that is not "clothed" within any part of the body, since there is no body part designed to express it. This is actually the main part of the soul, which throughout our lives normally remains outside our bodies, and of which we are conscious only in exceptional cases (for example, if we would be forced to choose between death and renouncing our faith). This part of the soul is referred to as its "head," while the part of the soul "clothed" in the body is referred to as its "foot."

As a rule, then, our emotional ties to God—our love for Him, our fear of Him, etc.—are an expression of the part of the soul vested in our bodies. We love God to the extent that we understand Him and His goodness with our intellect; we feel the emotional response to this rational awareness in our hearts.

The penitent's love for God, however, extends beyond the limits of rationality. His unquenchable thirst for God inspires him to levels of love that are ordinarily too intense to be manifest in the limited capacities of the mind and heart. Repentance thus lifts us to the level of our soul's "head."5

[13] God showed Moses a fiery coin: As was seen previously,6 God instructed the people to donate materials to the Tabernacle to atone for their involvement in the incident of the Golden Calf. It is in this context that the half-shekel poll-tax is described in this verse as "the atonement money…to atone for your souls."7

Moses was perplexed by the notion that the soul can be redeemed from such a severe sin by a mere piece of silver. Silver and soul are polar opposites: the soul epitomizes the spiritual and silver epitomizes earthliness. Not only is silver taken from the earth, the lowest of the four fundamental "elements"—fire, water, air, and earth8—it is usually found deep within the earth; it is the lowest of the low. Since the whole reason the soul needs to be redeemed is because it has succumbed to earthliness, how can too much earthliness be cured by more earthliness?

So Moses was shown a coin of fire—not by an angel, but by God Himself, for God is not bound by the rules of any order, natural or otherwise. God demonstrated that, in the case of the half-shekel, opposites can become one: silver, the lowest element (earth), becomes fire, the highest element. God's point was not that the source of the half-shekel is spirituality, for that is true of every physical object, nor was His point that the half-shekel becomes a vehicle for spirituality, for that is true of any object used to fulfill a commandment. Rather, God's point was that even the physical half-shekel can be transformed into "fire" and thereby have the power to redeem a soul.

This transformation occurs by virtue of the essence of our souls, which are a part of God. The soul's essence never sins; only the superficial aspect of the soul manifest in the body is susceptible to the ploys of the evil inclination. If we involve the essence of our souls and our entire being in what we do, we can harmoniously blend fire and silver.

A coin given without feeling is indeed cold and unremarkable. But a coin given with the warmth and enthusiasm of the soul's essence is fire—live spirituality—and can atone for the gravest sin. This was the coin of fire shown to Moses.

A parable (some say from the Baal Shem Tov): A person studied to be a goldsmith and silversmith. His teacher taught him all the details necessary to become an expert. But assuming it obvious, he left out one detail: to light the fire.

The lesson embodied in the half-shekel applies to all the commandments we perform. If we perform them with spiritual vitality and enthusiasm, they become coins of fire.9

This does not imply, however, that commandments performed without any apparent enthusiasm are worthless. The essence of every Jew's soul burns with the desire to do God's will; this desire can be temporarily concealed, but it is never absent. Even if we must force ourselves to do God's bidding, our act is still a "coin of fire" by virtue of the inner essence of our soul. Even when we approach another Jew on the street and ask him to put on tefilin or fulfill some other commandment, and he does so just to do us a favor or so we'll leave him alone, his act is still a "coin of fire" by virtue of the inner essence of his soul.10

Allegorically, silver coins and fire are opposites. Fire, which constantly soars upward, is a metaphor for our ardent yearning to transcend our limits and become one with God. The silver coin, in contrast, which is earthly and stable, represents the recognition that we must submit to God's will and therefore remain focused on the physical realm in order to fulfill His plan for creation.

The challenge is to set our "coins" on "fire": to submit to our mission of bringing Divinity into the world with the same fiery enthusiasm we naturally experience in our anxious yearning for transcendence. Normally, we only get enthusiastic about what we want. Therefore, the only way we can "set our coins ablaze" is by calling upon the essence of our soul, the point of consciousness where we are a part of God Himself. When our own consciousness merges seamlessly with God's, we can infuse our submission to His will with fiery enthusiasm, for His desire has become synonymous with our desire.11

[13] Twenty gerah: The half-shekel was an expression of Jewish unity—everyone, rich and poor alike, gave the same amount. Therefore, instead of simply saying, "give ten gerah," the Torah says that we must give "half of twenty gerah." We can only achieve unity when we all recognize that we are only halves. To be a complete shekel, we must unite with our fellow.

Similarly, we are also half in relation to God. The ten powers of the soul—our intellect and emotions—parallel and reflect the ten attributes (the sefirot) God assumes in creating and constantly re-creating the world. When we channel all ten powers of our soul, every nuance of our being, toward uniting with God and fulfilling our Divine mission, we align our soul-powers with God's attributes. Our ten becomes twenty—a holy shekel.12

[18] A copper laver: As described above, the Tabernacle and its furnishings reflect the process of spiritual refinement we undergo as part of our ongoing aspiration toward unity with God.

When entering from the outside, one first went into the Courtyard, encountering the laver and the Outer Altar. On a personal level, when we leave our own affairs in order to enter our personal Tabernacle and begin the process of spiritual renewal, we must first cleanse ourselves of whatever residual materialism we may carry. (This is similar to the purification process the soul must undergo, when it leaves this material world at the end of life, to be able to enter Paradise. Our personal, spiritual paradise is our inner Tabernacle; we must cleanse ourselves of our worldliness when entering this spiritual paradise as well.) This is why the first furnishing one confronts when entering the Courtyard from the outside is the laver.

In a sense, this purification process begins when we are still outside the Tabernacle and involved in our mundane pursuits. Assuming that we are not doing anything forbidden, even our so-called "mundane" affairs can be entirely holy, and even help us ascend to advanced levels of spiritual consciousness, rather than dull our spiritual sensitivities. This idea was embodied in the very material out of which the laver was made.

The laver was made out of the mirrors the Jewish women donated for the construction of the Tabernacle, which they had used to arouse their husbands' marital passion in Egypt.13

Inasmuch as spiritually, the laver signifies the necessity to rinse ourselves from even the slightest tinge of materialism before entering our inner Tabernacle, it seems incongruous that it was made out of the very mirrors that were used to draw attention to sensuality. Indeed, Moses originally wanted to reject this donation.14

The sexual urge is undoubtedly the archetypal lust of this world. Yet the fact that the laver was made from the Jewish women's mirrors teaches us not only that this act can be holy, but that it can even assist us in purifying ourselves of our worldly, materialistic, physical orientation.15

[21] The difference: The purpose of washing our hands and feet is to cleanse our active faculties of any "dirt," i.e., of any orientation that could impede our effectiveness in raising and spreading Divine consciousness. Thus, washing prepares us for the task we are about to perform, focusing our mind, hands, and feet on its importance.

When we are working on our "Outer Altar," involved in elevating the material world, we need to "wash" before each separate foray into it, because we need to take extra precaution in order to be able to resist the constantly renewed draw of materiality.

On the other hand, when we have successfully passed this stage and are working on our "Inner Altar," involved in enhancing our connection to God, it is enough to "wash" once before each entry into this realm, no matter how many separate aspects of our inner lives we focus on while there.

The exception to this is when we enter in order to rectify something that has gone wrong in this inner realm, indicated by the need to apply the blood of some special sacrifice to the Inner Altar. In such a case, it is necessary to wash again.16

[34] The incense: The incense was offered on the Inner Altar, which expresses the inner yearnings of the heart.17 The previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, was once discussing the significance of the Temple service in the inner life of the Jew. In describing the incense, he said, "The incense offering was not merely burning a mixture of spices on the Altar. One had to be familiar with all its eleven ingredients, to know what quantities were required of each, which of them had to be pounded and which had to be ground…. [Nowadays,] stories told about tzadikim provide such preparation."18

Galbanum: As was mentioned previously,19 this foul-smelling herb alludes to the wrongdoers among our people, who, despite their repugnant behavior, are still an indispensable part of the Jewish nation, just as Galbanum was an essential ingredient of the incense. In this vein, our sages teach us that any public prayer or fast that excludes sinners will prove ineffectual.

In fact, the ingredients of the spices included even forbidden spices. The stacte (mor) was actually the blood of a non-kosher wild animal from India.20

The incense expressed the intrinsic connection between God and the Jewish people, which can be neither severed nor sullied. This essential connection does not merely allow the inclusion of those who have gone astray; it demands it. If either the foul-smelling spice or the non-kosher one was omitted, the entire mixture was invalid.

The same is true of repentance, which we express through fasting. When repenting, we ask God to overlook or forgive our sins in response to our efforts to tap into our deepest and most essential connection with Him, which never loses its purity. By getting in touch with this aspect of our souls, referred to in Kabbalah as the yechidah ("single one"), we are able to rise above our past misdeeds and the separation that they caused between God and us. We learn to consciously relate to the level of reality in which we never truly went astray, for our yechidah's intrinsic relationship with its source is unwavering.

Clearly, the same essential connection to God belongs to every Jew without exception. If we exclude sinners in the course of our communal process of repentance and atonement, we are being hypocritical; our efforts are doomed to failure. It is only by recognizing that the very same path of repentance is open to every Jew that we can hope to actualize the message of the incense and properly rejuvenate our relationship with God.21

According to Maimonides, the purpose of the incense was to neutralize the foul odor of the meat that was slaughtered for the sacrifices.22 This would seem to contradict the sublime meanings ascribed to the incense as given above. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explained the apparent discrepancy as follows:

When someone brought a sacrifice to atone for a sin, he first had to repent in order for the sacrifice to effect atonement. But sometimes people did not repent fully, and then some of the foulness of their sin still remained. The incense, by manifesting the Jew's sublime levels of connection to God, served to neutralize this foulness.23

This function of the incense is alluded to by its components. The fact that some of its constituent spices were inedible, non-kosher, and foul-smelling indicates that it was intended to elevate even the lowest elements of life.24

[38] Whoever makes an identical compound in order to smell its fragrance will be cut off from his people: As explained above, the incense expressed the intrinsic connection between God and the Jewish people. In this light, the Ba'al Shem Tov interpreted this verse as follows:

Whoever makes an identical compound: If a person pretends to be connected to God, but he is only doing so—

In order to smell its fragrance: i.e., in order that others should take note and admire him for it, such a person—

Will be cut off from his people.25

Chapter 31

[16] The Israelites shall observe the Sabbath: An alternative meaning of the word for "observe" in this verse is "protect." It will be explained later26 that refraining from work on the Sabbath enables us to attune ourselves to God's "resting" mentality and thereby ascend to a higher order of living. In the idiom of our sages, every Jew is granted an "extra soul" on the Sabbath.27 However, being exceptionally gifted entails exceptional responsibility. Our heightened spiritual level on the Sabbath renders any offense to this spirituality more serious than it would be during the week. Therefore, on the Sabbath we must be more conscientious in our observance of the commandments; we must "protect" our heightened Sabbath consciousness.28

The Israelites shall observe the Sabbath, establishing the Sabbath: Again, an alternative meaning of the word for "observe" in this verse is "protect." In addition, an alternate meaning of the word for "establishing" is "making." Thus, this phraseology implies that there are two dimensions of the Sabbath: one that we are intended to "protect" and another that we are intended to "make."

The Sabbath is intrinsically holy, inasmuch as God sanctified it when He created the world.29 Our task with respect to this intrinsic holiness is simply to "protect" it, that is, be careful not to counteract or sabotage it. This we do by not performing forbidden types of work, and, more subtly, according our demeanor to the holy character of the day.

Beyond this, however, we can also infuse additional holiness into the Sabbath, over and above its own, intrinsic holiness. We do this by pursuing holiness, either through Torah study, prayer, or acts of kindness. In this way, we also "make" the Sabbath holier than it is in and of itself.30

[18] When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, He gave him the two Tablets of the Testimony: God finished teaching Moses and gave him the tablets on the fortieth day of his stay on the mountain.

But, as we will soon see, the people had already made the Golden Calf on the thirty-ninth day! In other words, even after the people committed this most heinous sin, God continued to teach Moses the Torah and gave him the tablets in order that he transmit them to the people.

The lesson for us here is that we must always relate to people in their best light, inviting and encouraging them to learn the Torah and fulfill its commandments even if they do not seem presently fit for this.31

Chapter 32

[4] A molten calf: As mentioned above,32 Pharaoh did not believe that God the Creator manifested His power on earth; he believed that God abandoned the world to the immutable forces of nature. The purpose of the plagues was to demonstrate that God can and does manifest Himself in the world, and thus to prove that He is the sole power we should obey.

When Moses did not descend the mountain at the anticipated time, the mixed multitude speculated that there was perhaps another explanation for the plagues. Perhaps, they reasoned, it was not that God overcame nature, but that one force of nature overcame another. Specifically, the Egyptians worshipped the zodiacal sign Aries, the ram. The next sign of the zodiac is Taurus, the bull. Perhaps Taurus overcame Aries?

This theory was so convincing that some of the Israelites accepted it; this is why the idol the people made was a calf.33

[6] They sacrificed ascent-offerings and brought peace-offerings: How is it that the people who witnessed God's miracles in Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds, experienced His revelation at Mount Sinai, and had been restored to the sublime spiritual status of Adam and Eve before the primordial sin, could commit such a blatant transgression so soon afterward?

True, a close reading of the narrative reveals that it was a gradual series of well-intentioned mistakes exploited by the mixed multitude that led them to build the calf, and that only a small percentage of the people actually participated. Still, the magnitude of the sin seems totally disproportionate to the spiritual heights the people had so recently attained.

The sages therefore assert34 that the entire incident was "forced" upon the people by God; much as He maneuvered Adam and Eve into the sin of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, so did He maneuver the people here into the sin of the Golden Calf. The purpose in each case was to provide an example of repentance for wrongdoers to follow, or, in a larger sense, to enable humanity to rise to the heights of spiritual achievement only attainable through repentance.

Repentance is not a path in life that we can chose on our own, since no one is allowed to sin intentionally. It is possible to repent only after we suffer an inadvertent lapse in Divine consciousness, allowing us to be duped into wrongdoing. Therefore, since the people at this time were beyond any wrongdoing, God had to give the evil inclination temporary sway over them so they could subsequently repent.35

[7] Go down from your present spiritual level: Moses not only did not participate in the people's sin, he could not even be faulted for not protesting their actions, since he was not there. Nonetheless, he was adversely affected by their sin. Such is the nature of the bond between a true Jewish leader and his people—when they fall, he falls too.36

[11] They have only been overcome temporarily by the folly of the moment: Moses articulated here a fundamental truth regarding every Jew's intrinsic connection with God, inherited from the patriarchs and sealed at the Giving of the Torah. By virtue of our Divine soul, we are all inherently and irrevocably bound to God, and are incapable of severing or denying—or even wanting to sever or deny—that bond.37 A Jew can contravene God's will in even the slightest way only when this intrinsic bond recedes into his subconscious mind and his conscious mind is overtaken by the temporary illusion that ignoring or denying this bond is somehow advantageous.38

But even then, deep down, the Jew remains faithful to his intrinsic bond with God.39 He knows that the illusion is a ruse and refuses to be duped.40

[16] Engraved upon the tablets: The Written Torah is written on parchment, with ink. It thus comprises two separate components: the message (the words written in ink) and the medium (the parchment upon which it is written). In the case of the Oral Torah, too, there are two separate components: the words (the message) and the person who is studying them (the medium for their articulation). Although we may become emotionally and intellectually involved in our studies, they nevertheless remain a peripheral addition to our essence.

The Ten Commandments, however, were engraved on the tablets themselves. Rather than two separate entities, there was just the stone itself, and the commandments were engraved onto it.

When something is written, it can be erased or scraped off; when it is studied orally, it can be forgotten. In the case of engraving, however, there is no way of separating the writing from the stone. It can be covered up, filled in, or additional parts of the stone can be chipped away so that the writing becomes illegible, but it cannot be erased or removed. The medium has become one with the message.

This is how we must approach the Torah. When we study the Torah, we should be so lost in it that all that exists for us is the Torah itself; the medium, the message, and the recipient of the message all merge to become one.

With this approach to the Torah, we can never completely lose touch with it. The sands of time may cover the engraving, or the temptations of the world may make it hard to decipher; yet, throughout it all, that connection is there, and cannot possibly be revoked. This is the message that God imparted by carving the commandments in stone: "The Torah, you, and I are all one, and this unity can never be severed."41

Our sages point out that the word for "engraved" (charut) is related to the word for "free" (cherut). Based on this relation, they teach us that there is no true freedom other than Torah study.42 But, given the great number of prescriptions and proscriptions in the Torah, the Torah and its lifestyle would seem to be more restrictive than liberating.

In truth, a great battles are waging within each of us: between our conflicting emotions, between matter and spirit, between the animal and the Godly. Each of these influences pulls in its own direction, in constant competition to gain the upper hand. We can be truly free only when one influence or the other is fully victorious.

But, in fact, this can only work in one direction. Our Divine spirit can never truly rest while being forced into mundane activities. It can at times be temporarily beaten down, or even give up for a while and declare a truce. But it will never fully accept the sovereignty of physical matter, since this would be totally against its nature. It merely bides its time, waiting for a chance to renew its attack.

Our animal nature, on the other hand, can be refined, and through its subjugation to the spirit it will eventually realize that this was its true desire all along. The forces of materialism are vitally important, but their true natural state is to be guided and governed by spirituality. When our animal nature recognizes this, it can make peace with its function, and all facets of our personality can congeal and work harmoniously toward a common goal.

Thus, the Torah's restrictions on our animal nature serve to liberate us, whereas repressing our desires for Godliness can only end in strife and discontent.43

[19] He saw the calf and the dancing…he hurled the tablets: On a deeper level, our sages say that the two tablets were actually too heavy for Moses to carry naturally, and were being supported by God's supernatural script. When the Jews sinned, the writing "departed." Moses' hands were weighed down, so he smashed the tablets involuntarily.44

Although God apprised Moses of the Jews' iniquity while he was still atop the mountain, he was too caught up in the spirituality of the experience to comprehend the betrayal of his flock. It was only when he descended to the camp and actually "saw the calf and the dancing" that the enormity of their sin hit home. His anger blazed and he could no longer bear the weight of the tablets.

This insight helps us clarify a seeming redundancy in an earlier verse. God says to Moses: "Go and descend, for your people have become corrupt."45 Rashi explains that the word "descend" implies that Moses should descend from his greatness, for it was given to him only in the merit of his people. Why the superfluous word "go"? God, in effect, told Moses: "At this point you cannot fully appreciate My anger. So, 'go'—go down to your people and actually see what it is that they have done; 'and descend'—at that point you will feel that you too have been dragged down."46

[32] If not, erase me from Your book: i.e., from the Torah. Although God is united with the Torah,47 His connection with His people is even more profound, as evidenced by the fact that the Jewish people preceded the Torah in creation.48 As a reflection of this, the bond between Moses and his people also transcended his bond to the Torah; therefore, if the Jewish people were to be annihilated, Moses saw no reason to remain part of the Torah. The same holds true for the bond between all true Jewish leaders and their flock.

This essential bond remains intact even when the Jew disregards his connection to the Torah: even when a Jew sins, he still remains a Jew.49 Moses was therefore ready to sacrifice his connection with Torah and be removed from its pages for the sake of his people—all of his people, even those who worshipped the Golden Calf.

The lesson here for us, first of all, is that we must strive to emulate Moses' self-sacrifice for the Jewish people. It is not sufficient to simply fulfill the commandment to "love your fellow as yourself";50 we must be ready to sacrifice everything, as was Moses, for the benefit of the Jewish people in general and for every single Jew in particular—no matter how far away he may seem at that moment from God and His Torah.

On a deeper level, however, by asking God that his name be removed from the Torah, Moses sought to invoke the essential bond between himself and his people, the essence of his being that cannot be defined by a name.51 Moses was telling God: "If, according to the Torah, they do not deserve to live, then reveal my essential bond with them, which will then reveal Your essential bond with them. When this essential bond is revealed, You can then reconnect with them through it and forgive them for their lapse in their observance of the Torah."

As was seen above,52 God complied in a certain sense with Moses' request: He removed Moses' name from a parashah of the Torah where it should have logically appeared, and this parashah was the one in which the institution of priesthood is established. By absenting Moses' name specifically from this parashah, God indicated that the priesthood would be imbued with Moses' essential bond to the Jewish people; inasmuch as this bond reveals the essence of every Jew, it served to unite all the people into one entity, enabling them all to both access the priesthood and be affected by it, in order to reinstate and enhance their connection to God.53

Chapter 33

[23] You will see My back, but [lit., 'and'] My face may not be seen: The words "you will see My back" by themselves would have implied that Moses will not see God's face, especially since God had already told him, "you will not be able to behold My face, for no man can see Me and still live."54 The fact that God added the words "My face may not be seen" suggests that there exists some way that it can indeed be seen. It is only necessary to negate a possibility, not an impossiblity. Thus, for example, one would never say that a certain idea is so deep it cannot be physically touched. Obviously one cannot touch a concept; the suggestion does not need to be negated.55

Moses, it seems, knew this as well. Maimonides explains his request to "let me behold Your glory"56 to mean that "Moses wished to know the true existence of God…as one knows a person whose face one has seen."57 And we know that God must fulfill the request of a righteous person at least on some level.

So God's statement, "My face may not be seen" implies that there is paradoxically a way to see God's face without seeing it. This idea can be understood from this verse if we slightly re-punctuate it, reading: "you will see My back and My face, [however, you will 'see' My face by] not seeing."

To explain: There are two methods of grasping a concept: if a concept is within our sphere of experience, we can understand it; if it is outside our sphere of experience but still connected to it in some way, we cannot understand it but we can understand what it is not—that is, we can understand it by negation. We mentally abstract it from level after level of possibility until, by process of elimination, we gain a glimpse of it. On the other hand, if it is entirely beyond our sphere of experience, we can neither conceptualize what it is nor what it is not.

The face of God, then—which is certainly altogether beyond our sphere of experience—should therefore logically be entirely unknowable, even by way of negation. But the astonishing implication of God's statement, "My face may not be seen," is that God is allowing Moses to see, i.e., to know His face—via negation.

And since Moses is the shepherd of all his people, throughout all generations, his prayer of "Let me behold Your glory" is fulfilled for all his flock. Each one of us, through revealing our inner Moses, can, through negation, know God's "face."58

Chapter 34

[1] I commend you for doing this: God commended Moses for shattering the tablets because Moses understood them to be the "wedding contract" that implicated them in being unfaithful to their "husband," God.59

Moses surely appreciated the tablets' awesome spiritual value. "The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God."60 Moses had himself received them directly from God's hand. Yet, when he saw that they posed a danger to the Jewish people, he did not hesitate. Only a minority of the people, the most depraved among them, had sinned. But Moses did not even wait for God's approval; he immediately smashed the holy tablets in order to protect his flock from punishment.

This was Moses' true greatness: he not only gave himself up completely for his people, he was even willing to sacrifice the Torah that he had personally received from God for the sake of the lowliest of his flock. This ultimate act of self-sacrifice expresses the depth of Moses' love for each and every Jew.61

On a deeper level, God commended Moses for shattering the tablets because by doing so, their metaphysical effect on reality was ended. God told Moses that the people had lost the second innocence He had granted them at the Giving of the Torah; Moses understood then that the people had to become penitents. As was mentioned above,62 the original tablets ensured that the people would not forget any of the Torah they learned. By breaking them, Moses ensured that the people would have to exert themselves to retain their learning, and this exertion is an essential facet of the lifestyle of penitents. God commended Moses for opening the path of repentance to the people, since this was God's intention in "forcing" the incident of the Golden Calf on the people, as mentioned above.63 By shattering the tablets in full view of the entire people, Moses made the path of repentance available even to those who had not participated in the sin.64

You may keep what is leftover…. Moses became even wealthier from this lode of sapphire: There are two types of delight we earn by studying the Torah. The first is the spiritual delight over understanding God's wisdom. This is the essence of the bliss the soul experiences in the afterlife, and we experience a taste of this bliss when we study the Torah in this world. The second type of delight is the material beneficence we earn by studying the Torah and abiding by its commandments.

Inasmuch as spiritual bliss is infinitely more sublime than material beneficence, the physical wealth Moses accrued from the lode of sapphire under his tent is referred to as the "leftovers" of the tablets.65

[7] He preserves the kindness a person does for two thousand generations….He remembers the premeditated sins of the fathers: God also articulated these ideas in the second of the Ten Commandments,66 but in reverse order: "who remembers the premeditated sins of the fathers….who shows kindness for at least two thousand generations." Furthermore, in the second commandment God "shows kindness," while here, He "preserves the kindness…."

We can explain these differences by noting that God evinces two types of kindness. The first is the kindness He shows toward someone who has transgressed His will. Such a person needs God's kindness in order to rectify his misdeeds. This type of kindness is referred to in the second commandment, which describes God as "showing kindness" after "the premeditated sins of the fathers."

The second type of kindness is that which God shows us simply because He loves us. This is an essential kindness, which is not occasioned by any need. This is the kindness referred to here, in the list of God's attributes of mercy, where God is described as "preserving," i.e., storing up His essential kindness, before any mention of sin.67

He forgives sins: The word for "forgive" here literally means "carry" or "lift." Based on this, the Ba'al Shem Tov taught that God elevates the sparks of holiness in the sin—for nothing, not even a sin, could exist unless it contained a spark of holiness—and returns them to their source. This is the essence of forgiveness.68

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explained this idea as follows: It is indeed impossible to elevate a sinful act; such an act is evil, and the only proper treatment for it is to renounce it. In contrast, the power of desire vested in the act is not evil, for it is possible to utilize this power to desire good as well as evil. When we repent properly, we divest our power of desire of its veneer of evil and restore it to its holy source.69

Unintentional sins: As a rule, it is not necessary to invoke the thirteen attributes of mercy in order to secure God's forgiveness for unintentional sins. When the Tabernacle or Temple is standing, it is possible to atone for many of these sins by repenting and then bringing an appropriate sacrifice. When the Tabernacle or Temple is not standing, fasting or charity can substitute for the sacrifice.70

Unintentional sins are nonetheless mentioned here because the principle that "He acquits those who repent properly and He does not acquit those who do not" applies to them, too. We should not make the mistake of thinking that it is not necessary to repent for unintentional sins. Although these sins are, of course, much less severe than intentional sins, they nonetheless indicate that we have not finished the process of self-refinement; if there were not some subtle spiritual dissonance within us, it would not surface as an inadvertent blunder.71

[9] Even though this is a stiff-necked people: Literally, this reads, "for this is a stiff-necked people"—as if the fact that we are stiff-necked is the reason to forgive us!

In the verse's literal sense, then, "stiff-necked" refers to the Jewish people's stubborn idealism, which our sages defined as our innate qualities of compassion, shyness, and charity. This idealism, which compels us to act in accordance with these qualities beyond the call of duty, makes us worthy of God's forgiveness.72

[10] I hereby make a covenant: God already made a covenant with the people at Mount Sinai when He gave them the Torah, as has been recounted above at length. Through this covenant He and they were bound together as two halves of one whole.

However, that covenant was dependent upon the people's devotion to fulfilling God's will. Once they broke their promise to serve God faithfully, a new covenant, which would make the original covenant apply even if the people were unfaithful, became necessary.

In order to establish this type of covenant, God had to reveal a much deeper level of His connection to the people, a level at which their success in obeying the commandments is irrelevant. Only in this way would the Divine presence be able to dwell among them and accompany them, as Moses had asked.73

But Moses sensed the danger inherent in this, too. If God were to manifest the level of His "personality" that precedes His will as it is embodied in the Torah and its commandments, this might negate the uniqueness of the Jewish people. After all, the justification for the existence of a chosen people is that God's will is important. True, Moses asked God to reveal this depth of His "personality" in order to show how special the Jewish people are to Him, but the exercise could backfire and other nations could claim, "If obeying God's will does not matter, then we can also lay claim to all You have promised the Jews."

Moses therefore asked God to ensure that this would not happen, that He would not let His presence rest on the other nations if they would invoke this argument, and God consented.74 This is the meaning of the continuation of this verse: "Before all your people I will perform wonders such as have not been performed on all the earth or for any nation." The "wonders" spoken of here are not physical miracles, for indeed, God did not do any miracles after this on the scale He had done beforehand in Egypt, at the Sea of Reeds, and in the desert until this point. Rather, the "wonder" here is the wonder of God making His presence rest on the Jewish people alone, despite the fact that they do not always seem to deserve such treatment.

These two points are the essence of this covenant. They also explain why the atonement for the incident of the Golden Calf was specifically a half shekel: this demonstrated that God and the Jews were still two halves of the same whole.75

[11] The Canaanites, the Amorites…: Only six of the seven nations are mentioned here. As was noted previously,76 this is because in this passage, God is reassuring the people that even though they sinned and therefore forfeited the privilege of being led directly by God's presence, the leader He will appoint as a substitute will still succeed in driving out the resident nations from the land promised them. Since the Girgashites fled on their own, there is therefore no need to mention them in this context.77

Nonetheless, should any Girgashites return to the land of Israel, they would still be subject to the directives given here. For this reason, when these directives are repeated later,78 the Girgashites are mentioned.79

As was mentioned previously, the six Canaanite nations allegorically personify the six unrectified emotions of the animal soul from chesed throug yesod and the Girgashites personify malchut of the animal soul, the drive to express these unrectified emotions in thought, speech, and action. When we rectify the six emotions of our animal soul, we will not have to worry about combating any drive to express them.

But until this process is complete, the individual must control his faculties of thought, speech, and action in order to ensure that they serve only holy purposes and not those of his six unrectified emotions of his animal soul. This verse therefore enjoins us to "guard yourself…"80

[29] The skin of his face had become radiant: It was specifically after receiving the second set of tablets that Moses' face shone. The second set of tablets signify an internalized experience of Divinity, which cannot be contested. Therefore, although they were not as miraculous as the first, the second tablets were never broken.

Similarly, during Moses' third and last 40-day sojourn in heaven, when he received the second set of tablets, his body absorbed the spirituality of heaven; he had become so refined that he was like an angel, immune to hunger. So, after receiving the second tablets—when he had not only been a guest in heaven, he himself had become heavenly—his physical body reflected this unearthly light.81