Rabbi Milevsky's Thought of the Week: Ki Sisa - 5779
A BIG YASHER KOACH
The customary way for congratulating a person for a praiseworthy job or a good deed, is to say Yasher Koach. The literal translation of this saying is: “May your strength be straight (or firm).” In essence, we are wishing the person the strength to continue doing good things.
Interestingly, the first time a person got a Yasher Koach (or as some Ashkenazi Jews say, Shkoiech) bestowed upon him was after the breaking of a precious object!
Rashi, in his very last comment to the Book of Deuteronomy, notes that when Hashem spoke to Moshe about "the first tablets which [Hebrew: asher] you broke," the Rabbis read this as if Hashem was saying to Moshe, "Yasher Koach for breaking the Luchot (tablets)."
Without a doubt, Moshe’s decision to break the handiwork of Hashem was the right call. Yet, it is puzzling why a phrase that made its appearance at such a low point of Jewish history - when our ancestors worshiped the Golden Calf - became the norm for a compliment.
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843–1926) writes that when Moshe saw the golden calf and the dancing around it, he realized that the nation needed to learn something quite important: Namely, nothing tangible in the physical world has its independent sanctity. Holiness of all objects – including Klei Kodesh (holy vessels), and people – even the righteous - is only due to the presence of Hashem. Moshe understood that if he would hand the Luchot – the handiwork of the Almighty - to the nation of Israel, in their current state and way of thinking, all they would do is substitute the calf for the tablets and worship this new “holy” physical object. Moshe broke the Luchot to communicate to the people that the essence of Judaism is that we should not be worshiping the tangible creations, but rather the Creator.
By Moshe breaking the Luchot, he made it clear to the nation that nothing physical - including himself - ought to be worshipped. By smashing the tablets, he was declaring “I am human, thus never worship me!” A person who sets aside that which is naturally desirable to oneself for the sake of Hashem and the greater good is indeed worthy of a big Yasher Koach.