I want to talk about Moshe’s breaking the לוחות, based on my understanding of Rav Moshe Eisemann’s understanding of the Ramban, in Rav Eiseman’s book, I Brought You Unto Me.
What exactly happened? One approach is that he was so overcome that he dropped them:
But most מפרשים understand that וישלך means he threw them, intentionally and forcefully:
And that’s how we understand the gemara, that ה׳ approved of Moshes’s intentional action:
And the text implies that Moshe went into the camp, saw the Golden Calf, then went back to the mountain to break the לוחות:
Why does Moshe break the לוחות? Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky mentions a bigger question: if he is going to break them, then why carry them down the mountain? There’s another question: what does breaking the לוחות accomplish? The Ten Commandments were already given; it’s not as though בני ישראל's obligations disappear if they aren’t carved in stone.
I’m going to start with an apparently unrelated Mishna that tells us what the לוחות represented:
What is מתן תורה? We usually associate that with שבועות, but the context of the mishna is לא היו ימים טובים לישראל כחמשה עשר באב וכיום הכפורים. We can understand the connection to בניין בית המקדש, since that’s when it was inaugurated:
The “חֲתֻנָּה” is on the day that the לוחות were given. The לוחות are, in Rav Eisemann’s words, the wedding ring. There are two aspects of מתן תורה: one was a continuation of the promise to the Avot. That was basically a contract, a business relationship. The experience of מעמד הר סיני was supposed to lead to a closer relationship, a חֲתֻנָּה. This would be the real fulfillment of ברית אבות, to become a (שמות יט:ה) סגלה מכל העמים. So what did it mean when Moshe broke the לוחות?
Moshe isn’t destroying evidence of the relationship; he’s preventing the relationship from ever starting.
But then why bring the לוחות down the mountain?
There’s an implied pause between פסוקים ח and ט. After ה׳'s first comment, I would have assumed that לך רד means “Go down to the people and fix them!”. Then ה׳ stops talking and we do not have Moshe’s response, but ה׳ continues: “The people are too stubborn; leave me alone and I will destroy them”. Rashi understands that ה׳ expected Moshe to protest, but Moshe doesn’t get the hint at first:
The gemara understands that Moshe did, in fact, protest:
Either way, in the end Moshe does protest, and his defense is that even if בני ישראל don’t deserve the חתנה any more, the original ברית is still valid:
And, in fact, when Moshe goes up to renegotiate the ברית, that is exactly what ה׳ says:
The problem is not this one cow. The problem is עם קשה ערף; things aren’t going to get better. It is safer for בני ישראל not to be “married” to הקב״ה. In Rav Kamenetsky’s reading, Moshe insists on bringing the לוחות down because he thinks the people are not that irredeemable:
It’s when he sees them not only with a Golden Calf, but actually dancing in front of it, even when he is standing there with the כתובה in his hands, that he realizes that ה׳ was right. They are too עם קשה ערף for this shidduch to work.
But Moshe does not give up, and spends the next 40 days renegotiating, and ends up arguing for the שחינה to return to the people despite their stubbornness:
And ה׳ agrees:
And the wedding is rescheduled for יום חתונתו, זו מתן תורה, the day of יום כיפור.