After Moshe’s forty-day stay atop Mount Sinai, Hashem gives him two stone Tablets. The Torah tells us that these Tablets were very special:
“Tablets inscribed on both sides; there was writing on this side and on the other.
And the Tablets were the work of God, and the writing was God’s writing, engraved upon the Tablets.”
The substance of the Tablets was itself a Divine creation. This is the only way in which we can understand the miraculous phenomenon of an inscription engraved upon them which could be read from all directions. If we engrave in stone, or write on regular paper, the writing usually cannot be read from the other side – and if it can, the letters appear backwards. In our world any reading, any point of view, entails the negation of the opposite (reverse) point of view. But in the initial appearance of the Torah – in the form of the first set of Tablets – the appearance of Divine truth was integrated with material substance in such a way that it was visible from every direction and intelligible from every point of view.
These wondrous Tablets existed only for a short time. Later on Hashem commanded that a second set of Tablets be prepared. These were completely different from the first set: Moshe himself sculpted them from stone and then ascended the mountain with them. The text here notes, “And he wrote” – leaving us in doubt as to whether it was Moshe or Hashem Himself who wrote upon them. (Only when we reach the parallel narrative in Sefer Devarim do we discover that it was indeed Hashem Who wrote.) The writing here was not an integral part of the Tablets, but rather an engraved inscription upon them: the writing and the Tablets were not of the same substance. The miraculous characteristic of being inscribed “on both sides” was also absent here. What happened?
Between the first Tablets and the second we find the episode of the golden calf, as a result of which Moshe shattered the Tablets upon his descent from Mount Sinai. The golden calf represented a broadening of Divine worship beyond its legitimate bounds. Hashem may be worshipped in many ways, but the golden calf is not one of them. As a result of this deviation Hashem could no longer rely on the nation’s natural inclination in matters of Divine service. The Torah, it seems, is not engraved within us, but rather inscribed upon us. There are perspectives from which what one sees is not a reflection of the Divine, but rather a perverted distortion.
The Gemara (Eruvin 54a) teaches: “Rabbi Elazar said: “What is the meaning of the expression, ‘engraved upon the Tablets’? (It means that) had the first Tablets not been shattered, Torah would never be forgotten from among Israel.” Rabbi Aha bar Yaakov said: “No nation or tongue could have ruled over them, as it is written – “engraved” (Heb: ‘harut’); this should be read not ‘harut’ but rather ‘herut’ (freedom).”
This is a wonderful metaphor teaching us of independence and freedom in light of the comparison between engraving and writing.
If the first Tablets had remained with us, Torah would have been a natural part of us. It would not have been a text external to us, which we must labor to acquire and which can be forgotten. Had the Torah been “engraved” within us, nothing else – no other cultures or ideologies – could have been inscribed upon us. But since, owing to our sin, the Torah is only “inscribed” upon us – like writing upon paper – other things may also be written there. Every page has a reverse side; the writing can be blurred or erased and other words can be written. The substance is man-made, and man is capable of ruining what is recorded upon it.
If we accept the Torah as we should, we may merit that Hashem grant us back the first set of Tablets. This is the promise of the prophet Yirmiyahu, in chapter 31: “I shall give My Torah within them, and upon their hearts i shall inscribe it, and I shall be their God and they shall be My nation.”