September 17, 2013
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #895, Parsha Thought

  …the very last verse of the Torah which is G-d’s eulogy for Moses who has just passed away… describes his “strong hand” and the “great awe that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.”What is the meaning of his “strong hand” and what was the “awesome” act that he performed before “the eyes of all Israel”?  …what was so spectacular and positive about his shattering of the tablets?


There is a Talmudic saying, “Everything follows the end.” This statement suggests that the end of a subject sums up the entire subject. This is especially true with respect to a Divine text such as the Torah.

With this introduction in mind, let us reflect on the very last verse of the Torah which is G-d’s eulogy for Moses who has just passed away. The last few verses describe Moses as the greatest prophet that ever lived. This is followed in the penultimate verse with his praise as the one whom G-d sent to perform great miracles in Egypt. However, the very last verse describes his “strong hand” and the “great awe that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.”


What is the meaning of his “strong hand” and what was the “awesome” act that he performed before “the eyes of all Israel”?

Rashi explains that this verse actually describes three separate feats of Moses:

First, he displayed his strong hand; the hand with which he received the Torah.

Second, he performed miracles and displayed power in the great and awesome desert.

Third, he shattered the tablets in the presence of all Israel.

Each one of these three items raises questions.


First, it is difficult to comprehend why Moses’ strong hand was needed to receive the Torah? And if it means literally that the Tablets were quite heavy and that Moses possessed the physical power to carry them, why would that be listed as Moses’ praise; the praise that was selected by G-d with which to conclude the Torah?

Second, it is difficult to understand why the miracles that were performed in the desert are mentioned separately from the miracles that he performed in Egypt and that were just mentioned in the preceding verse?

Third, what was so spectacular and positive about his shattering of the tablets? True, Rashi anticipated this question and added that G-d condoned his action and actually exclaimed, “Well done that you broke them.” However, the question remains, couldn’t something more positive about Moses have been said in the climax of G-d’s eulogy for history’s greatest human being?

Fourth, how do all these three things link together: Moses strong hand, miracles in the desert and his shattering of the Tablets?


To answer all these questions let us quote the words of the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanis 4:5) on this verse:

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman stated in the name of Rabbi Yonasan: “The tablets were six handbreadths long and three handbreadths wide. Moses was holding on to two of the handbreadths and G-d [was holding on to the other] two, leaving two in the middle. When Israel committed that act [construction of the Golden calf], G-d sought to seize them from Moses’ hand. Moses’ hand overpowered [G-d’s hand] and he seized it from Him. This is what Scripture says in his praise: ‘And all the strength of his hand.’ May there be peace to the hand that overpowered G-d’s right hand.”

This strange “tug-of-war” scenario between G-d and Moses represents the first description of Moses’ greatest power. That Moses was able to perform miracles in Egypt is secondary to his ability to “wrest” the Torah from G-d. To perform a miracle he had to be “merely” a transparent vehicle for G-d’s power. By simply carrying out G-d’s instructions Moses was able to channel G-d’s supernatural ability to crush Pharaoh and compel him to let the Jewish people go.

This explains why the Hagada states that G-d did everything exclusively: “I, and not an emissary.” How does this reconcile with Moses’ very prominent role in the Exodus? The answer is that Moses was a self-effacing, passive recipient of Divine power. Everything that happened was G-d’s exclusive work that was merely channeled through him, the way our voices are channeled through a loud speaker.

Moses’ passive role ended with the giving of the Torah. When G-d attempted to withdraw the Tablets in response to the Jewish people’s transgression, Moses clearly “challenged” G-d and won!

Obviously, Moses could not go against G-d’s will. G-d however manifests Himself on different levels. One could challenge a lower manifestation of G-d’s power by connecting to a higher and more elusive dimension of His power. G-d’s right hand, with which He gave the Tablets, is a metaphor for G-d’s attribute of kindness. It is a reflection of the Torah’s “ways of pleasantness” and “paths of peace.” But kindness, even G-d’s kindness, is but a level of the Divine that is cloaked in a “vessel” that defines and therefore limits the infinite Divine power. That Moses overpowered G-d’s right hand means that Moses accessed a more powerful manifestation of Divine power that is characterized as His “mighty hand.”

Even if G-d’s “conventional” kindness said “no” to the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people after they had degenerated into the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses invoked G-d’s elusive, infinite power of kindness. Moses struggled to access this level of kindness by digging deep into his own hidden level of consciousness. Once he revealed G-d’s unmitigated kindness there was nothing that could stand in the way of giving the Torah even to the creators of the Golden Calf.


This initiative of Moses was followed by an even more exalted manifestation of G-d’s power that he accessed. He performed miracles in a “great and awesome desert.”

Not only was Moses able to seize the Torah on behalf of sinners, he performed miracles for them despite their recalcitrant behavior throughout their stay in the desert.

That Moses would be G-d’s instrument to miraculously provide the Jews with all of their needs despite their many rebellious acts in the desert is a greater testament to Moses’ extraordinary stature, surpassing even his role as the liberator of his people from Egyptian bondage.

This may be hinted in the way Rashi applies the terms “great and awesome” to the desert. A desert is a metaphor for a spiritually hostile environment and an “awesome” desert is an exceedingly hostile environment. And yet, Moses performed all these wonders and displayed extraordinary strength and dedication to his people.


This too still does not capture the full extent of Moses’ greatness. It is followed by his ultimate praise—that he shattered the tablets!

In the first instance—where Moses won the “tug-of-war” with G-d—Moses fought to get the Torah to the Jewish people despite their unworthiness.

In the second scenario—where he performed miracles for them in the great and awesome desert—Moses performed miracles for them despite their continual rebelliousness.

In both situations, Moses fought for his people but not at his own expense. Moses lost nothing by procuring the Torah and performing miracles for them. Indeed, Moses accessed, and connected to, a more transcendent aspect of G-d to achieve these goals. Moses’ spiritual stature was enhanced. He had the Torah and he fought for his people.

The last feat—the shattering of the tablets—destroyed that which was most precious to him in order to save the Jewish people from destruction. The Rebbe explains that Moses was willing to forgo his most spiritual possession for the sake of his people. The irony here is that Moses first fought to give them the Torah, and then when he realized that they were in danger of receiving harsh retribution for having so blatantly violated the commandments, Moses made a U-turn and broke the tablets. By doing so, our Sages tell us, he annulled the contract between the Jewish people and G-d and thereby averted a catastrophe.

In these three areas Moses demonstrated that he would do anything to give to the Jews the Torah and all of their needs and that he would ultimately even sacrifice his most precious possession and his highest spiritual achievements for their survival.


Moses, our Sages tell us, was the first redeemer and he will also be the final redeemer. This does not suggest that Moses will actually be the Moshiach. Rather, Moshiach’s soul will be energized by Moses’ soul. Put another way: Moshiach will “appropriate” Moses’ traits and thus be empowered to take us out of exile.

Moshiach, we are told, is revealed while the Jewish people are still in exile. And even before the actual Redemption occurs, Moshiach—behind the scenes—wages war, with his spiritual power, against the enemies of the Jewish people. In this scenario he emulates Moses’ efforts in miraculously bringing the plagues upon Egypt.

But this does not capture the essence of Moshiach’s accomplishments. Moshiach, like Moses, does everything in his power to ensure that the Torah reaches every Jew regardless of their level of observance. Whereas in the past, there were some who looked askance at assimilated Jews and denied them Torah knowledge, Moshiach brings Torah to every Jew regardless of his or her level of observance. Moreover, Moshiach seeks out every Jew to provide him or her with Torah.

Moshiach is not content with bringing conventional knowledge of Torah to every Jew. Moshiach, like Moses before him, “wrests” the most precious parts of Torah—i.e., the mystical and inner dimension of Torah that was off limits even to most of the righteous of the past—from G-d, so to speak, and makes it accessible to every Jew. Moshiach then performs the greatest wonders for even those Jews who are identified with the great and awesome desert; Jews who are totally lost in exile.

Finally, and arguably, Moshiach’s greatest virtue is his willingness to sacrifice his own spiritual achievements and put aside his own assiduous study of Torah—his first love—to save a Jew who may have rejected all of its teachings.

Moshiach—like Moses—is a living Torah scroll, nay a Tablet, in whom the words of the Torah are etched and inseparable from them. Yet, when the well-being of a Jew is at stake, Moshiach is willing to shatter his own Tablets, i.e., take off time from his own Torah study and spiritual advancement to help another Jew materially and spiritually.

The above is applicable to each and every Jew since, as Chassidic thought tells us, we all possess a spark of both Moses and Moshiach. We can therefore emulate them and bring the ultimate Redemption.


Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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