While Moses was up on Mt. Sinai getting the details of the Torah from G‑d, who was carving the tablets of the Ten Commandments, some impatient Jews at the foot of the maintain decided to build the Golden Calf.

Of course, Moses did not know this, but G‑d did, as the Midrash tells us:

"As the Jews were standing below and carving the Golden Calf, G‑d was sitting above and carving out the Tablets of the Law, in order to give the Jews life."

What does this mean? In the end, these tablets were broken by Moses, so why did G‑d go to the trouble of carving them? And why was G‑d "sitting" while the Jews were "standing"?

A related statement in the Talmud is even more puzzling:

"As the Jews made [the Golden Calf], the tablets of the Law were half in the hands of G‑d and half in the hands of Moses. G‑d wanted to grab them from Moses, but Moses ….grabbed them away from G‑d."

What was the point of Moses getting the tablets out of G‑d’s hands...?

What was the point of Moses getting the tablets out of G‑d’s hands, if in the end he broke them anyway?

Shem miShmuel gives a fascinating explanation to all this. He says that standing is something that we do temporarily, while sitting is done in a fixed or permanent way. When we want to do one task and then move on to another, we stand; when we want to concentrate, we sit.

Therefore, the Jews, who were standing while making the Golden Calf, were in a temporary mode. G‑d, however, was in His permanent and fixed mode of providing for them as He carved out the Tablets of the Law. In other words, when the Jews committed the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, this was a mistake, a temporary aberration. But when G‑d carved out the Tablets of the Law, it was a permanent and ongoing occupation, and therefore the Midrash tells us that He was sitting.

However, we must still understand what was the point of carving and giving the tablets, if in the end they were only to be broken? In explanation, Shem miShmuel utilizes the duality of "inner vs. outer" or "internal vs. external" (chitzoniyut/penimiyut).

On an external level, the Jews were sinners. However, since their sin was only a temporary aberration – a mistake – they are considered to have remained profoundly and spiritually united with G‑d. The same is true of the tablets. On the superficial level, they were carved out of stone. But on a profound level, they consisted of spiritual letters, the letters of the Torah. When the tablets were broken, it was only the stone which shattered. The letters were G‑dly revelations which dissipated into the spiritual realm just as a soul leaves a body. They never really disappeared. And, since Moses took the tablets from G‑d, the soul of the Torah – the letters – remained in the Jews' possession.

...the tablets were a garment, to be donned and removed...

The first set of tablets was G‑d’s work. But once they were shattered when they fell from the hands of Moses, the letters had no medium of expression. They were, so to speak, hanging in the air. It was only when Moses, acting on G‑d’s directions, carved out the second set of tablets, that the letters of the Torah again took on a form of expression. That expression is the Torah which we have today.

It was as if the tablets were a garment, to be donned and removed, depending on the situation. On this basis, we can understand what the Talmud and the Midrash meant. G‑d was involved in carving the tablets even while the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf, because once the Jews received the soul of the Torah, it was theirs no matter what form the body – the medium of expression – took on. Whether spiritual or physical, oral or written, the soul of the Torah was in the hands of the Jews. Even when the tablets were shattered, the spirit remained in the letters, and it is this which G‑d gave to the Jews in order to uplift them.