Moshe Rabbeinu spends the majority of Parashat Eikev charging Bnei Yisrael to follow God’s commandments and informing them of the rewards they will receive when they do. Part of this appeal of Moshe is his retelling of the story of the Luchot, which begins in Perek 9. Moshe specifically refers to them as the “Luchot HaBerit,” “The Tablets of the Covenant” (Devarim 9:11). But what covenant is that? To understand the nature of this covenant, we must look to the Aseret HaDibrot. There, the Pasuk relates God’s words, “Lo Tishtachaveh LaHem VeLo Ta’ovdeim Ki Anochi Hashem Elokecha Keil Kana Pokeid Avon Avot Al Banim Al Shileishim VeAl Ribei’im LeSone’ay,” “You shall neither bow down to them nor serve [idols], for I am Hashem, your God, a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon the children for third and fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Shemot 20:5). Almost immediately afterwards, the Pesukim continue, “Lo Tisa Et Sheim Hashem Elokecha LaShav Ki Lo Yinakeh Hashem Eit Asher Yisa Et Shemo LaShav,” “You shall not take the name of Hashem, your God, in vain, for Hashem will not cleanse those who take His name in vain” (Shemot 20:7). The image projected here of Hashem is quite different from the one we are all used to – one of Rachamim (compassion), and kindness. On the other hand, the rewards are much greater (and passed on to eternity – 20:6); essentially, we are essentially offered a personal relationship with Hashem, although we will be held to much higher and harsher standards. What happened to this covenant? What happened to this jealous, but allowing us to live like angels, God?
To address this, we must first examine the next part of Moshe Rabbeinu’s narrative – the breaking of the Luchot at the Cheit HaEigel. According to the Rashbam, Moshe broke the Luchot simply because they got too heavy, seemingly from no fault of himself. Ramban disagrees and casts Moshe in a harsher light by indicating Moshe lost his temper and threw down the Luchot. Despite this incriminating statement, it may be possible to suggest that Moshe actually did the right thing in destroying the Luchot. When Hashem discusses a replacement set of Tablets, He describes the old ones as those “Asher Shibarta,” “That you [Moshe] broke” (Shemot 34:1). However, there is no rebuke for his actions; in fact, this almost seems like praise, giving Moshe a “Yiyasher Kochacha.”(see Shabbat 87a). But why the praise? To understand, let us closely examine Moshe’s actions. The Pasuk relates that Moshe Rabbeinu broke the Luchot at the base of the mountain, clearly in plain view of all Bnei Yisrael. Once again, why? We can perhaps explain using a parable, quoted by Rashi (ad loc. s.v. “Pesal LeCha”): A man and a woman are married, and the woman soon commits adultery while her husband is away on a trip. When the person who signed the Ketubah (marriage contract) hears of this, he tears apart the Ketubah, destroying all evidence that the two were already married. He thus ‘saves’ her from punishment, because the husband cannot accuse his “wife” of adultery, as he cannot prove that they were really married. Bnei Yisrael are that woman, Hashem is our husband, the golden calf is our adultery, Moshe is the signer (and destroyer), and the Luchot are our Ketubah. When Moshe sees what we have done, he smashes our covenant with God so that we may be saved from punishment, as the document to incriminate us is gone, along with our covenant with a jealous God who does not forget sins.
Both Moshe and Hashem recognize that the high stakes covenant originally given is not fit for this stubborn people, one who often strays from the proper path. A new covenant, represented by new Tablets, is drawn up, and the results are quite astonishing. Rather than beginning with what a jealous god Hashem is, Hashem instead begins with the famed thirteen attributes of mercy, explaining how He forgives any and all sins. Then, in a surprising about-face Hashem says that He will not those who continue to sin after their parents, to other He is “Nakeih,” “Wiping clean,” exactly what he said he would not be in the original covenant. He also leaves off “LeSone’ai,” indicating Hashem will not view sinners as harshly as before.
We can now perhaps tie together three events on a much more fundamental level: The breaking of the first Luchot, the fact that the second were hewn by Moshe, and the additional fact that both sets were placed in the Aron Kodesh. All of these can now be linked to the new covenant. The first set is broken because Bnei Yisrael violate the covenant, and Moshe tries to extricate them from it. The second set are hewn by Moshe, rather than Hashem, to show that the special relationship we once had is now gone and replaced with a more ‘down to earth’ and easier, so to speak, agreement. Finally, both sets are put in the Aron Kodesh, known also as the “Aron HaBerit,” the Ark of the Covenant. Both the old and the new agreements are kept for the generations. Perhaps by relating this story to Bnei Yisrael at this time, as they are about enter the Promised Land, Moshe is trying to give them one last message, still applicable today: Just because they received a new covenant does not mean that the old one is forever abandoned. They are both there in the Aron to remind us that we can still go beyond the Berit of the second Luchot and cleave to Hashem as if we were still able to live the angelic relationship promised in the Berit of the first Luchot.
Adapted from Shiurim by Rabbi Chaim Jachter and Terry Novetsky