Moses spends most of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim reminding the Israelites that for 40 years they have been rebelling against God and provoking God to anger. For 40 years Moses has been urging the people to change their ways and urging God not to wipe them out. After Moses dies and the people enter the Promised Land, he warns, he can no longer intercede for them.
In the middle of another harangue in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“on the heels of”), Moses is seized by a visceral memory from 40 years before.
In Choreiv you provoked God, and God became furious enough to exterminate you. When I went up to the mountain to take the stone tablets of the covenant that God had cut with you, and I stayed on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights—bread I did not eat and water I did not drink. Then God gave me the two stone tablets written by the finger of God, and on them were all the words that God had spoken with you on the mountain from the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And it happened at the end of 40 days and 40 nights, God gave me the two stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 9:8-11)
Choreiv = dryness, drought; an alternate name for Sinai.
Moses does not mention the reams of information God gave him during those 40 days, according to the book of Exodus/Shemot: hundreds of laws, and instructions for making a portable sanctuary. What sticks in his memory—so much that he says it twice—is receiving the stone tablets after spending 40 days and 40 nights on the mountaintop with God.
The Torah often uses “40 days” or “40 years” to mean “a long time”. But the phrase “40 days and 40 nights” appears in only four stories: Noah and the flood in Genesis; Moses’ two long stints on Mount Sinai in Exodus; Moses’ recollection of that time in this week’s Torah portion in Deuteronomy; and the prophet Elijah’s stay in a cave on Mount Choreiv in Kings I.
In all these passages, if something happens for 40 days and 40 nights, it is removed from the ordinary world.
On the last night of Moses’ first 40 days and nights on the mountaintop, God gives him the tablets. Then God tells him to hurry back down, because the Israelites have made themselves a cast-metal idol, a golden calf. In both the book of Exodus and Moses’ recollection 40 years later, God offers to wipe out those no-good Israelites and choose Moses’ descendants instead.
And God said to me: “I have seen this people, and look, it is a stiff-necked people. Leave me alone, and I will exterminate them and wipe out their name from under the heavens and make you into a greater and mightier nation than they.” (Deuteronomy 9:13-14)
In the Exodus account, Moses picks up on God’s hint and does not leave God alone. Instead, he argues that it would give God a bad reputation if God now killed the people God had personally brought out of Egypt. Only after God relents does Moses go down the mountain.
But 40 years later, Moses does not remember arguing with God. He merely says:
And I turned and came down from the mountain, and the mountain was burning with fire, and the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. (Deuteronomy 9:15)
His sensory impressions—the fire on the mountain, the stone tablets in his hands—come back to Moses so vividly that he misses an opportunity to remind the Israelites that he intervened for them again. He only remembers and patches it into his story later.
As Moses tells the story in this week’s Torah portion, he saw the people carousing in front of the golden calf, smashed the stone tablets, then went back up the mountain for another 40-day fast in order to appease God.
I grasped the two tablets and threw them from my two hands and shattered them before your eyes. Then I fell down before God, like the first time, 40 days and 40 nights—bread I did not eat and water I did not drink—because of all your offense that you committed, doing what was bad in God’s eyes, angering God. (Deuteronomy 9:17-18)
Moses backtracks briefly, remembering that he ground the calf into gold dust. But he does not mention all the other things he did according to Exodus before climbing the mountain again, including ordering the Levites to kill about 3,000 men who worshiped the golden calf, and asking God to either bear with the offending Israelites or erase Moses from God’s book.
What matters to Moses is that he spent another 40 days and 40 nights with God on the mountaintop.
According to Exodus, during that that time Moses saw God’s back, hear God describe Itself, bargained some more, and received more laws. Then God told him to write the words of the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets, which Moses did.
In Deuteronomy, Moses does not mention any of this, not even seeing God’s back! But he repeats three times that he stayed before God on the mountain a second time for 40 days and 40 nights. And in Moses’ memory, he made an ark for the tablets, but God carved the words into the stone.
And God wrote on the tablets, like the first inscription, the Ten Commandments that God spoke to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly, and God gave them to me. Then I turned and came down from the mountain, and I put the tablets in the ark that I had made, and they were there, as God had commanded me. (Deuteronomy 10:4-5)
Moses brings up the 40 days and 40 nights one more time before he returns to preaching.
And I, I stood on the mountain, as on the first days, 40 days and 40 nights, and God listened to me this time as well, and God did not want to exterminate you. God said to me: Get up, go on the journey in front of the people… (Deuteronomy 10:10-11)
Moses’ overriding memories of “40 days and 40 nights” and “two stone tablets“ could be considered a distraction from his point that the Israelites rebelled against God even at Mount Sinai/Choreiv, and Moses kept on interceding for them. Maybe now that he is 120 years old, Moses’ mind is wandering.
Or maybe these are the two most important things in the story after all:
1) The basic rules for human behavior are written in stone. Even if you shatter them, they will return.
2) When you spend 40 days and 40 nights above the world, like Noah in his ark or Moses on the mountain, you may be so high you forget to eat and drink. But God will bring you back down to deal with life on the ground, life with other people.