Nothing and No Place Is Inherently Holy: the Meshech Chochma on Ki Tissa

Max Buchdahl (he/him/his) lives in Washington Heights, is a rabbinical student, and tweets at @max_buchdahl. He writes a weekly parsha newsletter based on the Meshech Chochma, a commentary written by R’ Meir Simcha HaCohen of Dvinsk (1843–1926). You can click this link to sign up for the newsletter, which will arrive in your inbox each Friday morning. 

In the Meshech Chochma’s comment on parshat Terumah, which I looked at a few weeks ago, R’ Meir Simcha shares a glimpse of how he views holiness through the lens of the parochet, the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the remainder of the mishkan. This week, we will get another look at his vision of holiness, this time refracted through one of the most dramatic scenes in the Torah: Moshe’s breaking of the stone tablets. 

After presenting another set of instructions to Moshe, God gives him two tablets “written by the finger of God” (Shemot 31:18). Meanwhile, the Israelites encamped beneath Mount Sinai have grown impatient. Afraid that Moshe has abandoned them, they convince Aharon to help them build a molten calf, which they then begin to worship. 

God sees what is happening and has Moshe rush back down to see what is happening. Then, we see Moshe’s furious reaction. 

וַֽיְהִ֗י כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר קָרַב֙ אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וַיַּ֥רְא אֶת־הָעֵ֖גֶל וּמְחֹלֹ֑ת וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֣ף מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיַּשְׁלֵ֤ךְ מִיָּדָו֙ אֶת־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת וַיְשַׁבֵּ֥ר אֹתָ֖ם תַּ֥חַת הָהָֽר׃

And it happened when he drew near the camp that he saw the calf and the dancing and Moshe’s wrath flared, and he flung the tablets from his hand and smashed them at the bottom of the mountain. (Shemot 32:19)

The Meshech Chochma examines what exactly it means for Moshe to have destroyed the tablets. 

And it happened when he drew near the camp that he saw the calf and the dancing and Moshe’s wrath flared, and he flung the tablets from his hand and smashed them  at the bottom of the mountain. Torah and faith are the essences of the Jewish nation, and all of the holy places, i.e. Eretz Yisrael, Yerushalayim, are only details and are sanctified through the holiness of the Torah. Therefore, there is no distinction in matters of the Torah between time and place, which are equal in Eretz Yisrael and in the Diaspora [other than the mitzvot which are dependent on Eretz Yisrael] and equal among people, from Moshe down to the lowest of the low…

And do not think that the Temple and the mishkan are holy things in and of themselves. God forbid! God, may God’s name be blessed, is found amongst God’s children, and if they transgress the covenant, all of the holiness of the Temple and mishkan is removed from them, and [the Temple and mishkan] become profane. “Brutes shall enter her and defile her” (Yechezkel 7:22), and Titus entered the Holy of Holies and degraded it and he was not harmed because of it, since its holiness had been removed. In addition, the tablets which had God’s writing, even they were not themselves holy, but only holy for the Israelites, and since the Israelites acted as a prostitute* underneath the wedding canopy,** the tablets were considered to be like profane vessels without any holiness in and of themselves, but rather only if you observe [the commandments in] the tablets. The sum of the matter is that there is nothing sacred in the world…only God’s name is sacred in God’s necessary existence, and [only] God is worthy of praise and worship, and all holy things are holy because God commanded them, since God commanded [us] to build a mishkan for the bringing of sacrifices to God, may God’s name be blessed, only.***

ויהי כאשר קרב אל המחנה וירא את העגל ומחולות ויחר משה וישלך מידיו את הלוחות וישבר אותם תחת ההר, הענין, כי התורה והאמונה המה עיקרי האומה הישראלית וכל הקדושות א”י וירושלים כו’ המה פרטי וסניפי התורה ונתקדשו בקדושת התורה, ולכך אין חילוק לכל עניני התורה בין במקום בין בזמן והיא שוה בא”י ובחו”ל [לבד מצות התלוים בארץ] וכן הוא שוה בין לאדם הגבוה שבגבוהים, משה איש האלקים להשפל שבשפלים…

ואל תדמו כי המקדש והמשכן המה ענינים קדושים בעצמם, חלילה, השי”ת שורה בתוך בניו, ואם המה כאדם עברו ברית, הוסר מהם כל הקדושה והמה ככלי חול באו פריצים ויחללוה וטיטוס נכנס לקה”ק וזונה עמו ולא ניזוק, כי הוסר קדושתו. ויותר מזה הלוחות מכתב אלקים, גם המה אינם קדושים בעצם רק בשבילכם, וכאשר זנתה כלה בתוך חופתה המה נחשבים לנבלי חרש ואין בהם קדושה מצד עצמם, רק בשבילכם שאתם שומרים אותם. סוף דבר אין שום ענין קדוש בעולם…רק השי”ת שמו הוא קדוש במציאותו המחוייבת ולו נאוה תהלה ועבודה, וכל הקדושות המה מצד צווי שצוה הבורא לבנות משכן לעשות בו זבחים וקרבנות לשם הי”ת בלבד

There is a central question that the Meshech Chochma is addressing here: how can it be that Moshe destroyed tablets written by the very finger of God? Those tablets, one would think, must have been imbued with inherent kedusha, or holiness, such that Moshe’s destruction of them was nothing short of blasphemy. 

To answer this question, the Meshech Chochma first mentions the Temple and Yerushalayim, the city of Jerusalem. He claims these pieces of land were endowed by God with kedusha. Then, however, the Jewish people were assigned as stewards of that kedusha, which can either remain in those places or be removed depending upon our behavior. By doing profane things in a holy place, you strip that place of its kedusha. The kedusha becomes entirely contingent upon our upholding God’s Torah.

The Meshech Chochma then brings us back to Moshe’s breaking of the tablets. Once Moshe saw the Israelites rejecting God’s Torah in favor of the Golden Calf, the holiness in those tablets immediately dissipated. He threw them to the ground knowing they had lost all kedusha. Therefore, according to the Meshech Chochma, there was nothing blasphemous in Moshe’s behavior. By that point, he was simply destroying some clay. 

If God’s writing does not have inherent kedusha, then what, if anything, does? As the Meshech Chochma states, the only holy thing in the entire world  is God. That doesn’t mean, though, that God does not have the power to make things holy, to bring kedusha down from heaven into the world. In order to do that, however, there needs to be a partnership between God and the people of Israel. The people of Israel must uphold the covenant and perform mitzvot, or else the kedusha that would otherwise exist in places like Yerushalayim, or in objects like the stone tablets, disappears.

This interpretation puts an enormous amount of responsibility in the hands of individuals and the hands of the Jewish people as a collective. It allows us to see our own behavior as having a deep impact on the presence or absence of kedusha in the world, and it obligates us to endeavor in such a way that ensures kedusha will not be lost. 

As Yeshayahu Leibowitz teases out in his essays mentioned in the footnotes, this has political as well as theological import. According to the Meshech Chochma’s argument at the beginning of this comment, there is no inherent holiness in Eretz Yisrael or Yerushalayim. If the tablets can be mere profane vessels, Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim can be mere profane dirt and stone. 

The prophet most associated with concerns about holiness, Yechezkel, in prophesying the Jewish people’s exile from the land, especially highlights mitzvot about ethical behavior as those which justify our exile. When the exiles complain to Yechezkel of their being dispossessed of Eretz Yisrael, the prophet responds to them sharply, speaking in the name of none but God.

לָכֵן֩ אֱמֹ֨ר אֲלֵהֶ֜ם כֹּה־אָמַ֣ר ׀ אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱהֹוִ֗ה עַל־הַדָּ֧ם ׀ תֹּאכֵ֛לוּ וְעֵינֵכֶ֛ם תִּשְׂא֥וּ אֶל־גִּלּוּלֵיכֶ֖ם וְדָ֣ם תִּשְׁפֹּ֑כוּ וְהָאָ֖רֶץ תִּירָֽשׁוּ׃

עֲמַדְתֶּ֤ם עַֽל־חַרְבְּכֶם֙ עֲשִׂיתֶ֣ן תּוֹעֵבָ֔ה וְאִ֛ישׁ אֶת־אֵ֥שֶׁת רֵעֵ֖הוּ טִמֵּאתֶ֑ם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ תִּירָֽש

“Therefore, say to them, Thus said the Master, the Lord: Over blood you eat, and your eyes you lift up to your foul things, and you shed blood. And you shall take hold of the land? You took your stand with your sword. You performed abominations, and each man defiled his fellow man’s wife. And you shall take hold of the land?” (Yechezkel 33:25-26)

This is, at the end of the day, the lesson of Moshe’s radical act of breaking the tablets. The breaking of the tablets teaches us that even those objects and places that we may think of as inherently holy are not so. However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have ways of making them holy. By performing mitzvot, by upholding the covenant with God, we have the opportunity to retain kedusha. Our ancestors removed kedusha from what was, or could have been, a holy object. Like them, we all have opportunities to either reinstill or take away kedusha in our world today. Shabbat shalom. 

* This is a reference to a statement of the rabbi Ulla in BT Gittin 36b. Rashi tells us that it is a reference to the sin of the Golden Calf. 

** This is a reference to the case where a bride commits adultery immediately after the wedding ceremony. The relationship between God and the people Israel is likened to the relationship between groom and bride (cf. Hoshea 2:21-22). Here, the wedding ceremony is taken to mean the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the act of adultery is the sin of the Golden Calf.

*** This comment is mentioned in several places by the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (“Accepting the Yoke of Heaven: Commentary on the Weekly Torah Portion,” parshat Ki Tissa, pg. 88; “The Significance of Redemption,” (1971), from “Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State,” pg. 122). Leibowitz was deeply influenced by R’ Meir Simcha’s theology. I first encountered R’ Meir Simcha through Leibowitz, and my translation of this passage is partially informed by the English translations in the two works mentioned above. 


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