In understanding the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, we are faced with a dilemma. When Moshe Rabbeinu smashed the first Luchos he was applauded by G-d ( See Rashi, Devarim 34:12). But now that Hashem has forgiven the people enough to give them another set of tablets, Moshe Rabbeinu is instructed to hew them himself. If there was such a high degree of divine approval for breaking the luchos why “punish” Moshe Rabbeinu and demand he make restitution?
We would be stumped by this question if we didn’t take a closer look at the wording of the instruction. “פסל לך שני לוחות אבנים” “Carve for yourself two tablets of stone” [Shemos 34:1].
The operative word is “לך”, “for yourself”. The first set of tablets were entirely spiritual in nature. They were hand-carved by G-d Himself and presented as a gift to the Jewish people. But it was a gift that was unearned, and as such its importance and message were callously rejected by them.
When the time comes for the fullness of the penance over the sin that caused the first luchos to be set aside, Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu – if you don’t want these to be betrayed as well, you’d better not consider them a gift. Only by accepting ownership and claiming it through the effort of carving the tablets himself, does Moshe truly acquire the Torah on behalf of mankind. No longer is the Torah simply a divine gift, but it now resides etched in the tablets of man’s toil.
What held true then applies even now. If we see the Torah as some light handed down from above – we may be wowed, but we will also feel entitled to turn away at will. But, if we carve our own tablets – if we struggle and invest in the acquisition of that Torah – then it will be truly ours, never to be betrayed.