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.