Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 14 March 2020 / 18 Adar II 5780

Parshat Ki Tisa

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Become a Supporter Library Library

Written in Stone

The Torah describes the miraculous nature of the writing on the first set of Tablets in a series of phrases: They were inscribed on both sides; on the one side and on the other they were inscribed… the writing was G-d’s writing, “charut” [cut right] through the Tablets. The content of the luchot has already been conveyed, but here the Torah sees fit to convey the presentation as well.

Our Sages give an even more vivid picture, based on these verses. First, they teach that the writing went right through both sides of the stone and not was engraved merely to a certain depth. Second, despite this, the writing was readable from both sides of the stone. The words appeared in proper sequence and were not reversed, as one would expect if they had been bored through the entire stone. The insides of the letters that form complete circles — the samech and the mem that appear at the end of a word — stood suspended in the air. They could stay in place only by a miracle — the handwriting of G-d.

Not only was the content the word of G-d, but the luchot themselves the stone and the manner in which the words were written — were intended to be eidut, testimony to the Divine origins of the Torah. More, the manner of writing communicated the manner in which the Jew was to relate to Torah.

The writing... was “charut” on the Tablets. This root — charut — appears no other place in Tanach. The writing was not merely engraved, it cut through the luchot. The root chor — means hole, or opening, in the sense of the stone being bored through. It is also the root of the word cherut, meaning “freedom.” In this sense, it would mean “freedom over the Tablets” — i.e. the writing had free mastery over the Tablets, as evidenced by the mem and samech standing midair. The Tablets did not bear the writing, as is the case in ordinary engraving, but the writing supported the Tablets. This had symbolic import for how to the Jew is to relate to Torah: his material life (the stone) is subordinate to the Torah (the words), and the Torah supports the material. The writing raises the material above nature, which governs all matter. The same applies to human beings in whom the spirit of this writing has taken hold: they make themselves the bearers of this spirit, and the spirit uplifts them, and supports them above the forces of blind compulsion. In other words, they become free.

There is yet another message in the complete chiseling of the letters through the entire stone, and their legibility from both sides. The word of G-d must not grip us only superficially and one-sidedly. It must penetrate us through and through, and set its stamp on every part of our being. Whichever way we are turned, whatever circumstances we face, with whomever we interact with, the writing of G‑d is to be visible on us, clearly and legibly for all to see. The Jew is to bear this Divine stamp in the home and in the office, in private quarters and in the street, in his interactions with his superiors and with his spouse — just like the Tablets, the word of G-d is to be imprinted on him through and through.

  • Sources: Shemot 32:15-16; Collected Writings I, pp. 281-28

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