Rabbi Milevsky's Thought of the Week: Ki Tisah - 5772
A HEARTY YASHER KOACH
A customary way of congratulating those who do a praiseworthy job or a good deed is to say to them Yasher koach. The literal translation of the saying is “May your strength be straight (or firm).” In essence, you are wishing the person the strength to continue doing good things. Interestingly, the first person to get a Yasher koach (or as some Ashkenazi Jews say Shkoiech) bestowed upon him got it as a result of breaking a precious object!
Rashi, in his very last comment to the end of 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 were saying to Moshe "Yasher koach for breaking the Luchot (tablets)."
Without a doubt Moshe’s decision to break the hand-work 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 calf and the dancing around it, he realized that the nation needed to learn something quite imperative, 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 - are only due to the presence of Hashem. Moshe understood that if he would hand the Luchot – the hand work of the Almighty - to the nation of Israel, at 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.
However the sad reality is that humans in power quite often cherish the belief of the masses, that they are imbued with supernatural abilities. This is a problem that has been around since Biblical times and unfortunately is still alive and well. So called Kabbalists who claim to perform miracles (if the price is right) are quite often frauds who are exploiting the Jewish religion.
By Moshe breaking the Luchot he made it clear to the nation that nothing physical - including himself - ought to be worshiped. 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.