Breaking the Ten Commandments: Moshe's Greatest Accomplishment?

Endings and conclusions are generally significant and important.

Whether it is the finale of an opera, the concluding scene of an amazing movie, or lehavdil, the intensity of the closing Neilah prayer on Yom Kippur; a well-executed final act is invariably dramatic, exciting and memorable. 

Given the importance of endings, Rashi’s concluding commentary on the Torah’s final three words, is exceedingly difficult to understand.

The final three words of the Torah occur at the end of a three-verse section which describes Moshe’s accomplishments.

In the first two verses of this last section, The Torah states that Moshe’s level of prophecy was unrivaled, and that Moshe served as G-d’s emissary in bringing signs and wonders in Egypt.

וְלֹֽא־קָ֨ם נָבִ֥יא ע֛וֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל כְּמֹשֶׁ֑ה אֲשֶׁר֙ יְדָע֣וֹ ה' פָּנִ֖ים אֶל־פָּנִֽים

לְכָל־הָ֨אֹת֜וֹת וְהַמּוֹפְתִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר שְׁלָחוֹ֙ ה' לַעֲשׂ֖וֹת בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לְפַרְעֹ֥ה וּלְכָל־עֲבָדָ֖יו וּלְכָל־אַרְצֽוֹ׃

Deuteronomy 34:10-11

In the Torah’s final three words, Moses is described and praised as having done something “before the eyes of the Jewish people”.

וּלְכֹל֙ הַיָּ֣ד הַחֲזָקָ֔ה וּלְכֹ֖ל הַמּוֹרָ֣א הַגָּד֑וֹל אֲשֶׁר֙ עָשָׂ֣ה מֹשֶׁ֔ה לְעֵינֵ֖י כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Deuteronomy 34:12

According to the foremost Biblical commentator Rashi, the great action that Moshe performed and which is deemed worthy of the distinction as the Torah’s conclusion, was Moshe’s decision to break the Ten Commandments upon seeing the Jews were worshipping the Golden Calf.

Rashi explains:

לעיני כל ישראל.שֶׁנְּשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ לִשְׁבֹּר הַלּוּחוֹת לְעֵינֵיהֶם

שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר "וָאֲשַׁבְּרֵם לְעֵינֵיכֶם" (דברים ט')

 וְהִסְכִּימָה דַעַת הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְדַעְתּוֹ,

 שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר "אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ" (שמות ל"ד) — יִישַׁר כֹּחֲךָ שֶׁשִּׁבַּרְתָּ:

According to Rashi, G-d not only agreed with the decision to smash the Ten Commandments, He even “congratulated” Moshe by saying, “Yasher Koach (Yishar Kochachah) – good job that you broke the Ten Commandments.

The questions concerning Rashi’s comment abound. Moshe accomplished a lot in life. Moshe (with G-d’s help) split the Red Sea, brought the plagues against Egypt, and became the ultimate teacher of the Jewish people.

Why then is the breaking of the Ten Commandments regarded as the crescendo and the climax of Moshe’s career? Breaking the two tablets may have been necessary, but surely something else should be viewed as the pinnacle of Moshe’s career.

Furthermore, why should G-d’s holy and perfect Torah end on the painfully embarrassing note of Moshe breaking the Ten Commandments? Logically, there should be a better way for the Torah to conclude.

Perhaps the reason why G-d in His infinite wisdom chose to conclude Torah in this fashion, is that none of us are perfect. Part of the human condition is that we make mistakes and that we


Furthermore, there is a tendency to “double-down” and not to admit our errors. We often minimize our failures in order to avoid the need to “start over.”

Starting over, can mean that we have to figuratively destroy our previous efforts. No one wishes to toil in vain. Consequently, we sometimes deceive ourselves into thinking that it isn’t necessary to make dramatic changes, when a change in course is needed.

Upon seeing the Jewish people worshipping an idol at the very place where they had received the Torah, Moshe resisted the temptation to minimize the seriousness of the sin of the Golden Calf. 

Moshe could have rationalized that dramatic measures were not necessary because:

a.             The Jewish nation was frightened,

b.             The Satan had played a dirty trick and,

c.             The Jewish people were not worshipping the idol, but rather looking for an intermediary in order to connect to G-d.

Instead Moshe had the courage to honestly view the debacle of the Golden Calf as the utterly disgraceful failure it was, and realized that the only remedy was to begin anew.

Moshe understood the holiness and comprehended the sanctity of the Ten Commandments. He was very well aware that these two tablets were the most precious items on the face of the Earth. But Moshe also realized that if the Jewish people had fallen to the point of worshipping an idol at Mt. Sinai, then sadly, the Ten Commandments were relatively meaningless.

Moshe recognized that part of the “restart” process for the Jewish people meant that there had to be a separation from the past. Therefore, Moshe made the painful and difficult decision that the Ten Commandments had to be broken.

The Torah’s conclusion, where G-d “congratulates” Moshe for having the fortitude to begin again, teaches that G-d gave the gift of the Torah because He yearns for us to be great, and that desires that we separate ourselves from the mistakes and the mediocrities of the past.

Part of the process of becoming truly great, is having the strength to admit failure, the courage to comprehend the errors of the past, and the fortitude to sometimes take our previous efforts, and figuratively “smash them” to pieces.

Moshe accomplished many great things and taught the Jewish people numerous lessons. According to Rashi, the Torah concludes with Moshe breaking the Ten Commandments, because the most significant lesson that Moshe taught may have been how to confront failure, break with the past and move forward towards greatness.