By Rabbi Gila Colman Ruskin
You young folks just really don’t appreciate all that we went through so that you and your peers could reap the benefits of (fill in the blank) civil rights, women’s rights, disability rights, the World Wide Web, etc.
We marched, we lobbied and we corrected our documents with Wite-Out. We walked to school uphill in the snow both ways.
I guess this phenomenon has been going on since there were at least two generations — the elders bemoaning the lack of understanding of the youngsters, who just assume that things were always as effortless as they are today. We know that people really only believe a thing when they see it with their eyes.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses undertakes the thankless task of educating the generation that is about to cross over the Jordan to the Promised Land, promised to their parents long ago.
Their parents, survivors of slavery, were actual witnesses to plagues in Egypt, the sea walls rising to let them escape on dry land, manna appearing on the ground and water emerging from rocks. They were present when the earth swallowed up Korach and his fellow mutineers, when a donkey talked, when a serpent healed, when the scouts reported that the land across the river was populated by giants. And when God, frustrated with their lack of faith, decreed that other than Joshua and Caleb, the carcasses of an entire generation would drop in the wilderness.
The tales told by their parents in bedtime stories, or around the campfires, or on their death beds were certainly embellished for dramatic effect.
Moses realized, with the sigh of an old man, that he must set the record straight and recount for this generation what actually happened and, most importantly, what God had intended for them to learn from these experiences.
In Parshat Eikev, one of those events was the smashing of the tablets. “When I descended from Mount Sinai, and beheld your parents dancing around a golden statue of a calf, in fury I smashed the tablets with the words spoken by the Holy God and the pieces went flying everywhere. “
Let’s take a look at the actual words in the Torah, where Moses spoke to this younger generation as if they had actually been present:
“I saw how you had sinned against the LORD your God: you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that the LORD had enjoined upon you. Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes” (Deuteronomy 9:17).
The Rushyner Rebbe (1796-1850) admonished us to notice that there is a seemingly extraneous word in this verse: “before your eyes.” Why was it necessary to emphasize that the two tablets of stone were broken before their eyes?
He taught that indeed the stone shattered into pieces, but the letters of God’s word were never destroyed. The letters flew up and hovered in the air until they could be recorded again in the second set of tablets.
What the Israelites saw “before their eyes” was stone breaking into bits, but what they did not see were the letters, the eternal message that could never be broken. Perhaps the reason that the people continued to be so recalcitrant was because they assumed that God’s word was no longer viable, no longer the law.
Moses told this new generation about to enter the land of promise: Even when you see it with your own eyes, do not believe that this is whole truth. Beyond the material world, of physical and tangible places, things and events is a system of Divine values and principles that is everlasting.
How brilliant a lesson for our own times, when we read and hear countless untruths, twisted hoaxes, unsubstantiated accusations all around us, when our rights are trampled upon, and what we thought was permanent seems now to be transient.
Just as the letters of God’s Revelation of how to live in an ethical civilization continued to hover in the ether of eternity when the stone tablets were broken, the principles of equality and justice embedded in the founding of our nation must continue to be the foundation of the way we should live.
What we see with our eyes is only the facade of the truth. What we have been taught by God through our religion is implanted in our hearts and our minds. These foundational ethical principles will strengthen our resolve to survive as righteous people committed to the human community.
Rabbi Gila Colman Ruskin recently retired from Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace, Maryland, and now lives in West Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.