THE BACK OF THE TABLETS – a short story by Wayne-Daniel Berard


“Here!” the young man almost shouted and dumped the contents of the bag onto the rebbe’s desk. Pieces of blanched, yellow stone, pock-marked and worn, spilled out across the green blotter.

The young man slumped into a chair in the corner of the office. The rebbe merely sat, unmoved, at his desk.“Two years!” the young man groaned. “Two straight years of work, and I still can’t make heads or tails out of them.”“It is not such a long time . . .” the rebbe spoke quietly.

“It is to me!” The young man leaped up and began to pace around the small office. “My whole career is tied up in those fragments, Professor — my entire life. I’m supposed to defend my dissertation soon, and . . . and there it is, in pieces. Everything. In pieces.”

He dropped again into a chair and buried his head in his hands.
“Jacobson,” began the rebbe. “I’m not even on your committee. You didn’t want me, remember? ‘This is about science, not fairy tales,’ you said. “Biblical archeology . . .”

“But you know!” Jacobson stood up wildly. “You’ve always known, haven’t you! When I found the shards at Horeb . . .”

“Sinai,” murmured the rebbe.

“Yes, yes. And when I devised a way to get them out. . .”

“Stole them!”

“The university disagreed, Professor. They were more than glad to have these treasures here. And, as the peace talks were underway, and actual ownership of the territory in dispute . . .”

The rebbe slammed his palm on his desk as he stood up.

“Coveting academic position for its own sake! Stealing from the most sacred! Lying to everyone! Infidelity! Idol worship!”

“Don’t give me your old commandments, Abramovich! Or rather, let me give them to you. Here. Now.” He pointed to the heap of stones. “Besides, I’ve never been unfaithful to anyone. And what do you mean, ‘idol-worship?’ In this day and age?”

“You clearly have all the answers, young man.” Then, under his breath, “. . . for all the good they’ve done you.”

Jacobson began to circle the room, agitated, frustrated.

“I saw it in your eyes the day I announced their arrival. Whenever we passed in the hall or met on the quad. They were laughing at me, your eyes. You refused to come to the exhibition. You knew I would get nowhere on this.

“I’ve assembled and reassembled these pieces a thousand times. I’ve used the best scientific methods, employed the most complete linguistic sources — hell, you taught me Biblical Hebrew yourself, years ago!”

“I remember,” the rebbe sighed.

“Then why?!” Now it was his turn to slam his hand to the desk. “Why does the answer elude me? What do you know that I don’t? Tell me! Tell me!”

The rebbe turned his back to Jacobson.

“Please!” he whispered.

Then, out of the stillness.

“Torah,” spoke the rebbe.


“What you don’t know. You don’t know Torah. Specifically, Exodus 32: 15-16 . . .”

The rebbe pulled a watch from his pocket. “Not to mention 34: 29. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a class. Kindly lock up when you leave.” And he swept past the confused graduate student and out the door.

Jacobson stood stunned for a moment, then knelt to burrow in his leather bag. His lap-top was there, notebooks, daybook, but no . . .

His eyes quickly scanned Professor Abramovich’s shelves for a Torah — in English. Jacobson leapt to his feet, tore a volume from the shelf, racing through the pages like a madman. Soon he had found it:

Moses went back down the mountain holding
the two tablets of the Testimony inscribed on
both sides, on the front and on the back. The
tablets were the handiwork of God, and the
writing was God’s writing . . .

“Of course!” he said, slamming the book shut like a shot. “Of course!” And he laughed aloud. “It’s backwards! That’s why I couldn’t decipher it! The commandments on the back of the tablets . . .”

Unceremoniously, he reopened the Torah, searching furiously. He read how Moses had smashed the original tablets at the infidelity of Israel with the calf of gold. That God had recalled him to the mountain to receive them once again . . .

So Moses remained with the Lord forty days and
forty nights without food or drink. The Lord wrote
down the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments,
on the tablets.

“It doesn’t say, ‘both sides,’ ” Jacobson whispered to himself. “The second time it doesn’t say ‘on both sides!’” And he stared incredulously at the pile of stone pieces before him.

It didn’t take him long after that. He found a dictionary of Biblical Hebrew on the professor’s shelf. Searching through the jig-saw shards that he already knew so well, he began to reassemble the tablets. First, the well-known ten. That done, he slowly, carefully flipped each fragment over, and there it was. The letters backwards from left to right, the commandments from ten to one. The reverse side of the Law.

It was finished. Only then did he stand back and truly begin to read.

Desire what you already possess.
Give true witness to yourself.
Give to each what truly belongs to them. Do justice.
Be faithful.

Honor your children, that they may have long life in the land.
Remember to keep part of the Sabbath in every day.
Make right use of the Lord’s name:

See my image in the self alone.
You, too,“Shall Be Whatever You Shall Be.” Then . . .

Be Whatever You Shall Be,
and thus lead yourselves out of the land of Egypt,
of narrowed straits, of slavery . . .

Jacobson began to swallow hard. He didn’t really want anything that he had, not his knowledge, the students he taught, the professors who taught him. They were all only boring means to an end — scholarship, a high position at a major university. But even that wasn’t what he truly coveted.

To tell the truth, what he really wanted, had always wanted, was prestige, fame, to be looked up to and fussed over by all he met. It just so happened that his gifts lay in books and school — not in, say, hitting a ball or saying the right thing at a party. Or understanding business and landing a high-paying job with just a bachelor’s degree. Or . . .

There was Liza. She admired him, his intellect, his determination. She loved him. He’d never been unfaithful to her, never had the time. The old man was crazy . . .

But then, what did she like to say at department parties when they were together? “Jon’s work is his wife. I’m just his mistress . . . .” Everyone would laugh.
He stared again at the pieces of history before him. He recalled the deception, the bribes involved with bringing them back to America. He’d even sought out another member of the party whom he knew was smuggling drugs back home . . . God!
There was the sound of shuffling in the hall — classes changing. He had missed his teaching assignment that day, and it wasn’t the first. He’d had too much anxiety, important work to do. He hadn’t even posted the cancellation — stupid kids, mindless, half-savages. He was their teacher, but they meant nothing to him, these children of his . . .

His head slumped to the desk. Exhausted. He never stopped working, wheedling, politicking, advancing himself. And now this. Oddly enough, his great discovery did not fill him with energy, with enthusiasm. Quite the opposite. The thought of the work ahead, the papers, lectures, books, appearances, positions and promotions — the idea itself drained him to his soul. His soul was tired. Whatever his soul was . . .

For there lay the long and short of it. Sitting at a metal desk behind ivied walls, his cheek against its cold surface, on the verge of his great triumph, Jacobson began to weep. “You Will Be Whatever You Will Be” — but he had no idea who that was. A beautiful partner, a string of academic honors, and now his future expanding limitlessly before him, and he wept, infinitely strange to himself. A line surfaced of its own before his swollen consciousness, “An infant crying in the night; An infant crying for the light; And with no language but a cry.”

His tears trickled through the cracked spaces between the shards like narrow straits.

He barely heard the office door open or Dr. Abramovich enter. The rebbe placed a thick hand on the younger man’s shoulder. Jacobson turned his head.
“What should I do?”

The professor smiled. “There are one hundred-eighty six chapters in Torah,” he said. “You’ve only glanced at two of them.”

“But the fragments, their message . . . we have to tell somebody, to do something with them . . .?”

The professor paused.

“Moses smashed the tablets because the people worshipped a piece of gold,” he said. “And God chose not to rewrite the back of the commands. Even Moses did not go against that choice, did not reveal the inverse of the Law to the world, even after all that time in the desert . . .”

Dr. Abramovich looked out his high window, across the quad and on to the city skyline in the distance.

“A piece of gold . . . Are we more ready than Israel at Sinai, Jonathan . . .?”

“So . . . we just sit on this?” Jacobson gestured across the desk.

“Begin with the Torah,” answered the rebbe. “Come tonight and we’ll study together. In forty years, we’ll see. Maybe.”


Wayne-Daniel Berard, PhD, teaches Humanities at Nichols College, Dudley, MA. He publishes broadly in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. His novella, Everything We Want, was published in 2018 by Bloodstone Press. A poetry collection, The Realm of Blessing, will be published in 2020 by Unsolicited Press.

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