The Broken Tablets And Mr. Gottlieb

The Broken Tablets And Mr. Gottlieb

Candlelighting: 5:17 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 25:1-27:19
Haftorah: I Kings 5:26-6:13
Havdalah: 6:18 p.m.

If you ask almost any Hebrew Day School graduate what is the first comment in the Torah by the foremost biblical commentator, Rashi, he will give you an almost immediate answer. Rashi says, by right, the Torah should have started with the first mitzvah addressed to the nation: designating the New Moon. So why did the Torah begin with the story of creation?

The answer is that when the nations of the world will accuse the Jewish people of stealing the Land of Israel from another population (and this was written 1,000 years ago), our response will be: the earth was created by the Almighty; He has the absolute right to apportion the land to whomever He feels should receive it. But then if you ask the same student what was Rashi’s last comment in the Torah, in parshat Vezot Habrachah, read on Simchat Torah, it will take the exceptional student (or rabbi for that matter) to give you the correct answer.

The verse in Deuteronomy speaks of, “that mighty hand, and in all the awesome power that Moses showed in the sight of all Israel” [Deuteronomy 34:12]. And what act does Rashi choose to show the greatness of Moses? One of the Ten Plagues? The splitting of the Sea of Reeds? Hitting the rock that then brought forth streams of water? No, none of these.

Instead, Rashi chooses an unlikely incident from today’s Torah reading. As Moses descends from the top of Mount Sinai carrying the two Tablets of the Covenant, he is confronted with the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf. In anger, he throws the Tablets down at the foot of the mountain, shattering them. Rashi, quoting from the Talmud [Shabbat 87], tells us that God congratulates Moses for this act of destruction. Rashi’s last words are, “Yeyasher Kochacha Sheshibarta,” yasher koach, congratulations that you shattered them (the Tablets).

Would you have expected that Rashi would finish his exegesis of the Bible with the incident of the breaking of the Tablets? Usually we complete books of Scripture or the Oral Law with an uplifting story or message. This is a real downer. Why did Rashi choose to end his commentary in this way?

I would like to try and answer with a personal story. I was a 7-year-old second grader at the Ramaz Academy (that’s what the Ramaz School was called then). We started each day with the Shacharit morning prayers. Our Hebrew teacher was Mr. Gottlieb, a new addition to the staff. Mr. Gottlieb was middle- aged, a recent immigrant from Germany. He spoke with a very distinctive, heavy German accent. We were not the best-behaved students during the service, and talking, passing notes and other such inappropriate behavior was all too common. Mr. Gottlieb, on an almost daily basis, explained that proper decorum was expected of us. After all, we were talking to God and not being respectful.

As the weeks went by, with little improvement, Mr. Gottlieb went from trying to reason with us, to ultimately raising his voice, sending individuals out of the room, and other such rebukes, attempting to have us do the right thing. Then one day something happened that became etched in my memory. How many things do any of us remember from our early elementary school years? Well, this day was one.

The day began, as did all others, with Shacharit. The buzzing of misbehavior started, getting louder and louder with Mr. Gottlieb’s face getting increasingly red. Suddenly Mr. Gottlieb took his siddur, his prayer book, and flung it across to the other side of the room, where it thumped on the floor. A large gasp was heard from all of the class. Hands went up to our mouths. We were all shocked and stunned. The teacher deliberately throwing his siddur, a book that we kissed if we accidently dropped it? There was a deafening silence in the room. Mr. Gottlieb then explained that if we could not respect the prayer service, then the book in which we prayed had also been disrespected. He then said he would give us one more chance. Each of us began to pray and there was not a hint of any further disturbance or distraction. This decorum continued day after day and almost all of us began to concentrate on the prayers. And to this day, that incident has remained with me. As for Mr. Gottlieb? He was fired soon thereafter for the action taken that day that was unbecoming for a teacher, despite our protestations.

At least for me, I understand why Rashi chose to complete his commentary on the Torah with the Almighty congratulating Moses for breaking the Tablets in the heat of anger, Tablets on which God Himself had written the Ten Commandments.

And Mr. Gottlieb, wherever you are, I just want you to know that you had a life-long effect at least on one little boy in your class. Yasher Koach!

Fred Ehrman is an investment adviser, chairman of the board of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions of Israel, and national vice president of the Orthodox Union. He has celebrated his third Siyum Hashas, the completion of learning the Babylonian Talmud.

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