Exploring Moshe’s message by dramatizing the text

by Rabbi Michah Liben

Parashat Ki Tisa

Ex. 30:11-34:35

At the height of Parashat Ki Tisa is a particularly dramatic passage. Picture the iconic scene: Moshe, after 40 days of receiving God’s revelation atop Mt. Sinai, descends with two stone tablets inscribed with God’s words. Part way down the mountain, he hears blasphemous cries coming from the Israelite camp, and as he draws closer, he sees the people dancing around their golden calf. Witnessing the idolatrous scene, Moshe throws down the sacred tablets, shattering them at the foot of the mountain.

When I ask students to act out this scene, they typically play the role in the same way, at least at first–an incensed Moshe becomes red with anger, raises the tablets high above his head, and hurls them down mightily. Indeed, this dramatization accords with the p’shat (contextual or straightforward reading) of the verse, and Rashi’s commentary supports this: “Moshe said to himself, ‘the entire nation have become apostates; how can I give it to them?’”

Contrast this approach, however, with that of Rashbam: “When Moshe saw the calf, his strength failed him, and he no longer felt strong enough to hold the tablets. He cast them forward so they would not injure his feet as they fell.” This commentary paints a vastly different picture!  When students act out Rashbam’s version, they transform Moshe into a feeble old man dropping the tablets, a far cry from the mighty Moshe depicted above.

Ramban adds another dimension: “Moshe had no compunction about breaking them, even though they were God’s work. When he saw the Israelites’ evil deed, he could not restrain his anger.” In this conception, Moshe does not take the time to think about a justification for his actions, as Rashi indicates; rather, he is overcome by rage and acts on impulse. The director of this scene would probably call for a wild fling of the tablets, rather than a deliberate throw.

Ibn Ezra, meanwhile, likens the scene to a broken relationship: “God and the Israelites were like a husband and wife, and the understanding between them had been violated. Moshe ‘tore up’ their original marriage contract, as he was jealous on God’s behalf.” And Shadal, lastly, indicates another purpose behind Moshe’s actions: “He sought to strike fear into the nation, and demonstrate that their covenant with God had been broken.”

Acting out the scene according to the different commentators adds layers to the narrative, but also goes beyond mere stage directions. By exploring these interpretations, we can identify several “different Moshes” in the text. Do you prefer the version of Moshe who is righteously indignant (Rashi), or genuinely crestfallen (Rashbam)? Are you more convinced by the description of a zealous defender (Ibn Ezra), or demonstrative disciplinarian (Shadal)? Do you identify with the leader who, at times, simply loses control (Ramban)? Which Moshe would you rather be; which would you rather have leading your people? Moreover, what are the “evil deeds” that call for righteous indignation today, and how ought that indignation be expressed?

We read a parasha each week, but the words are not meant to be confined to a book or a synagogue service. Rather, they are meant to guide our actions and be experienced in relevant and meaningful ways. By dramatizing the text, we prepare ourselves to live by the Torah’s values. As you listen to the parasha recited this Shabbat, close your eyes and imagine the scene. How does the Torah come to life for you? Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

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