And HASHEM said to Moshe, “Carve for yourself (pesal lecha) two stone Tablets like the first and I will write on the Tablets the words that were on the first Tablets which you broke. (Shemos 34:1)
You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence. Do not make for yourself a carved image (lecha pesal) nor any likeness of that which is in the heavens above or on the earth below… (Shemos 20:3-4)
It’s remarkable that the same two words “pesal lecha” and “lecha pesal”, “carve for yourself” and “for yourself carve” can have such varying results. Those Tablets that Moshe was instructed “carve for yourself” were the 2nd unbroken Tablets that were placed in the Aron with the 1rst broken Tablets and a Sefer Torah written by Moshe all of which resided in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem. Nothing could be more elevated in this entire material universe. Somehow the Aron did not even take up any physical space. At the other extreme end of the spiritual spectrum is the expectation to not to carve out an idol. Almost nothing is more despicable in G-d’s world than the likes of a Golden Calf. The same two words “pesal lecha” and “lecha pesal” account for both. What’s the difference in these two types of carvings? The answer I heard goes like this; “It all depends on where you put the “lecha”- where you put your- self.” If the “self” comes after the doing it can be an action for the Holy of Holies. If it precedes the deed, then if may well be worthy of the title idolatry.
This entire notion is reflected in the difference between the way we express ourselves in English versus the Holy Language of Hebrew. In English when I want to say that I wrote a poem, I say “I wrote a poem!” The first word is “I” at the beginning of the sentence and it’s the tallest letter. When one wishes to say in the Holy Tongue that he wrote something, (in the first person) he says, “Ketavti”. The letter “yud” that indicates “I” is the littlest of the letters and it appears at the very end. The simple attitude of the size and the placement of the “I” can make the biggest difference in the quality of the result, as it is written, “I stand between HASHEM and between you…” (Devarim 5:5) The Baal Shem Tov had taught this verse to mean that it’s the exaggerated sense of the “I” that stands between you and HASHEM.
Nobody is talking about eliminating the “I”. We live in bodies and the sages of the Talmud tell us that the Torah was not given over to ministering angels but rather to flesh and blood humans. How then are we expected to view what we do?
The answer may be illustrated by the following parable of the Ben Ish Chai. This little story caught my attention a while back and I could not quite figure out what it might mean maybe till now: In Spain there lived an outstanding archer. He was the best in Europe. The king himself was also well trained in archery. One day a large entourage of ministers accompanied the king to an open field where a contest had been arranged between the king and the master archer. They set up a target painted on a cloth stretched between two poles and each agreed to shoot ten shots. The king shot first. Each of his shots went through ten different points of the blue of the bull’s eye. The king felt quite proud of his performance. Then the famous marksman himself stepped up and let fly his ten arrows. His first shot missed the center but then each of his next nine arrows went through the same exact hole made by the first arrow. The ministers of the king declared the king the winner but later on when they were alone the king expressed his gratitude to the expert archer for the deference he had shown and he gave him a valuable gift in appreciation.
In this story each individual is like the king. There is a part of us that competes with the HASHEM. It is definitely very good for us to a certain extent because we are greatly improved in our striving to be more G-dly. Even if others applaud our accomplishments like the entourage of the king somehow deep down inside we know the real truth. We have only been allowed to look victorious to feel accomplished and be encouraged. For that same reason I let my six year old son beat me in arm wrestling. He struts about like a strong man after each contest, but in the depth of his heart he knows who he is and how powerful “I” can be. DvarTorah, Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Label Lam and Torah.org.