What happened after Moshe smashed the first set of Luchot? Those broken stone shards were nothing but a sad reminder of what could have been, so how did Moshe treat them? Did he throw them away in the trash? Did he bury them? What was his reaction toward these harbingers of national failure? Chazal (Bava Batra 14b) teach us that Moshe saved those shattered fragments and treated them with the utmost respect by placing them in the Aron Kodesh, right next to the two new tablets that Hashem instructed him to carve.
However, there is an alternate ending to the story of the first two tablets. In Parshat Eikev (Devarim 9:18), Moshe recounts his experience after Hashem forgave the Jews for their sin with the Golden Calf. Hashem commands him to carve a second pair of stone tablets, and Moshe succeeds in bringing them down the mountain unscathed. Then, Hashem makes one more command: "VeAsita Lecha Aron Eitz”, “And make for yourself a wooden ark" (10:1). Nothing fancy like the decorated golden Aron, just a simple wooden box. Presumably, this humble container would serve as the new tablets’ home until the Aron Kodesh was ready, at which point the little wooden ark would have done its job and would be placed in Genizah (hidden away). In fact, this practice is relatively common when dealing with holy objects that no longer serve a functional purpose (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Dei’ah 282). Yet, the Ramban (Devarim 10:1) presents an intriguing idea from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Shekalim 6:1) whereby the plain wooden ark that Moshe built would henceforth be designated as a permanent home for the Shivrei HaLuchot. This teaching is attributed to Rabi Yehudah bar Ila’ai, who apparently believed that each set of tablets required its own separate dwelling. The tablets that Moshe smashed deserved their own special space in the world, so Hashem instructed him to create that space in the plain wooden ark.
Interestingly, the Ramban goes out of his way to point out that Rabi Yehudah bar Ila’ah is a minority opinion, specifically stating that "Divrei Yachid Heim,” “these are the words of an individual" (ibid.) He clarifies that the majority of the Chachamim disagree with this notion, as they collectively maintain there was one single ark in the desert that contained both pairs of Luchot. Indeed, this version of events is widely accepted and expounded throughout Shas. For example, the previous Gemara (Bava Batra 14a) presents a calculation of the Aron’s dimensions which allows for enough space to fit the Shivrei HaLuchot right alongside the second set of Luchot.
Nevertheless, it may yet be worthwhile to contemplate the minority opinion from a mental health standpoint. In his theory of cognitive development, Jean Piaget proposed two models by which we learn to process new information. One model is to "assimilate" the unfamiliar concept, fitting it into the established structure of our minds. Alternatively, we can "accommodate" new information by adjusting the structure itself. One process absorbs the new idea into an already-existing knowledge base, while the other process changes that knowledge base to reflect the new information learned. Along these lines, one might consider which approach to take in processing the Shivrei HaLuchot. How do we cope when confronted by setbacks, disappointment, or failure?
The assimilation approach bears a certain appeal in this case. After all, if we can place the hardships we encounter into a familiar context, or think about difficult subjects in simple terms, then it might be easier to work through our challenges. Similarly, Moshe placed the broken tablets comfortably alongside the unbroken set within the Aron Kodesh. According to the Gemara, the Aron was designed to carry both. This enabled Moshe to fit the painful reminders of our failure into an already established structure of hope and resolve, thus enabling the Jews to move on from such a harrowing experience in a healthy and functional way.
Yet, some experiences simply will not fit into the established structure. In these moments, the structure itself must change in order to meet new challenges. Coping with adversity often requires a shift in perspective, and perhaps that is one way to understand the minority opinion quoted by the Ramban. The Luchot were supposed to enjoy the majesty and splendor of the Aron Kodesh, but the Jews sinned and now those magnificent stone tablets lay shattered at the foot of the mountain. How do we process such a devastating setback? Rabi Yehuda bar Ila’ai suggested we try to think outside the box. Maybe the Shivrei HaLuchot should have their own space apart from the fancy golden Aron. True, that was not the plan before, but that plan doesn’t seem to fit now. A change in structure is in order. Let the glamorous Aron Kodesh be the dwelling place for tablets that are new and whole, bursting with excitement and potential. On the other hand, the fragmented remains of the first tablets do not share that reality and might best be served by the plain wooden Aron. A sturdy, dignified, and reliable structure is an appropriate receptacle for something precious that broke. Let our response to overwhelming failure be the quiet strength of resilience.
The Shivrei HaLuchot compel us to recognize that renewal does not always mean fixing. We don’t go through life gluing every broken shard back together, and it may even be difficult to fit the pieces back into place. Rather, an appropriate response might be to think outside the box and make for ourselves a wooden Aron. When it comes to meeting challenges, perhaps our focus in finding solutions should include finding them an appropriate space in our lives.