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Shattered Tablets, Broken Democracies
The Torah teaches that we need visual reminders of our leaders' destructiveness and our collective sins. Here are some suggestions.
In this week's portion of Ekev, Moses reviews the misadventures of the Israelites in the wilderness, including the unfortunate shattering of the tablets of the Law as result of the Golden Calf incident. He notes (Deut. 10:2) that a set of the tablets eventually finds its way into the Ark of the Covenant, but it's not clear whether it's just the new, refashioned set that is put there, or whether the broken set is included too.
It’s counterintuitive to include both sets. After all, when I break a wineglass or something more precious (I once smashed a Havdalah set and still haven’t forgiven myself), I can’t wait to clean up the mess, throw the pieces out and go onto Amazon to order a replacement right away.
But the Talmudic sages begged to differ. (Bava Batra 14b):
The verses state: “At that time the Lord said to me: Hew for yourself two tablets of stone like the first…and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke, and you shall put them in the Ark” (Deuteronomy 10:1–2).
This teaches that both the second set of tablets and the broken pieces of the first set of tablets were placed in the Ark.
That image of the broken tablets standing alongside the new ones is a helpful visualization for our traumatic times. The Ten Commandments are the Jewish people's Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, all rolled into one. And yet they were smashed - by Moses, no less, when the Israelites went off the rails, and that nearly led to their destruction.
Maybe it was intended from the start for the ark to include both sets of tablets because they are so different: One depicts the Heavenly Law, perfect and pure, and the other represents sullied, shattered hopes and promises, revealing what happens when perfect, abstract law collides with real life and the all-too-human temper of a flawed though beloved leader, Moses.
Things break, but sometimes broken things should not be left behind. Sometimes the shards can be helpful reminders of our power to destroy and our need to take ownership of our destructiveness. If ever Judaism had a visual to remind us that no one is above the law, not even Moses, it is this image of the shattered tablets that Moses himself broke, alongside the perfect set copied from the first.
The message this week is that no leader should be allowed to go unchecked and unbalanced, especially when that leader appears, increasingly, to be unbalanced. Checks and balances are the key to any functional form of democratic governance.
The best reaction to the most recent indictment against Donald Trump was provided by none other than Mike Pence, who tweeted:
Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States… Our country is more important than one man. Our constitution is more important than any one man’s career…
Perhaps those gallows built for Pence should be reconstructed outside the Capitol as a permanent memorial, much as the shattered mementos of ancient Israel's greatest transgression remained for all to see in the ark (at least if you were a high priest or Indiana Jones). There needs to be a January 6 museum, asap, just as that day needs to become a national day of mourning and reflection.
But for now, re-erecting the Pence gallows will do. Let’s build that noose - and install an electric fence around it so no one will be tempted to use it. If we don’t build it, within a few years - or days - someone will be denying it ever existed.
I’m a fan of visual reminders. Judaism is as well, which is why Jewish holidays are replete with visual aids (evidently, Rudy Giuliani thinks we overdo the whole Passover thing). Our most significant religious garment, the Tallit), was designed specifically to be a reminder of the commandments. We literally wear our visuals on our backs.
And we don’t always throw out the things we break. Take the Afikoman, for instance, which gains its special value only once it is broken. And many now take the shard of glass broken at weddings and encase them to be hung as mezuzahs on their homes. We ransom broken things on Passover and after weddings, hang them up for display and to be kissed when we enter the room. We love our broken things.
There are things that should be discarded, like statues exalting despised dictators or Confederate officers. They need to be removed, though there is an argument to be made for simple relocation rather than destruction, as with those statues of former Soviet leaders now guarding toilets in Tallinn, Estonia.
But whatever we do with idols of despots, I’m all for keeping the instruments of their abuse in place right where they were: the slave auction blocks, the lynching ropes, the cattle cars and gas chambers. Sometimes the locations of great massacres need to be transformed because the pain inflicted there was too great - hence the reconstruction of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh as a memorial and museum - as long as the memory is preserved. Transform, but do not whitewash.
Moses understood that people are susceptible to collective amnesia when the recollections are too painful. Sometimes they simply wipe the history books clean, as we are seeing now with enslavement narratives in some American states. Having those broken commandments around meant that no one would ever forget the Golden Calf. Similarly, a gallows in the heart of DC would be a stain not easily removed, one that could be artistically enhanced for effect but not softened to look more like a chin-up bar or an unfinished Huppah. No graffiti, no dramatic signage. Just the pillar and the noose. It’s got be horrifying - like the original.
And once (hopefully) Israel’s still-marching majority and still-functioning judiciary eliminate the stain of Netanyahu’s judicial coup, there will need to be a tangible reminder there of what that country has endured. One possibility is a version of the Israeli flag that has been popping up lately, which I first saw in a political cartoon in the London Jewish Chronicle. It shows the two interlocking triangles separated - an indication of how this once united country has been ripped in half by this foolish, destructive legislation.
For the protesters, the original flag has become a powerful symbol of the resistance, which marks a new embrace of patriotism by the center-left.
But if I were to pick an object to place into the ark right next to the shattered tablets of the Law, I’d prefer a tattered copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Like the original Ten Commandments, whose promise was all-too-quickly snuffed out by the Golden Calf, this hastily composed, visionary but half-baked document neglected to include clear instructions on constitutional next steps, separation of powers, and navigating the precarious balance between religion and state. And they forgot the part about democracy, a word that does not appear even once in the document. Yep, a torn declaration might just be the thing.
Unlike Trump and Netanyahu, Moses would not have blown up his country for the sake of his ego. He did not risk blood on the streets to remain out of jail, which both Trump and Netanyahu have done. He accepted his lot and the nation's collective sin, and had to bear witness to the fruits of his anger every time he saw those shattered tablets inside the ark.
It is a time to take a cold, hard look at those shattered tablets, that hangman's noose, that broken Star of David and incomplete Declaration - and let our broken symbols point the way to preserving painful memories and reclaiming the truth.