After forgiving the Jewish people for worshipping the golden calf, God commanded Moses to quarry the stone for carving out a second set of luchot ha-brit :
“Carve out two tablets for yourself just like the first ones. I will write on those tablets the same words that were on the first tablets that you broke.” (Ex. 34:1)
Why did God tell Moses to carve out the stone “for yourself”? In what way did these tablets belong to Moses?
The Talmud explains that Moses was to provide the material for the tablets from his own supply of precious stone. According to the Midrash, a sapphire quarry was located directly underneath Moses’ tent.
Moses, it turns out, was fabulously wealthy.
That Moses was rich is not incidental. The Sages learned from his example that wealth is a prerequisite for prophecy (Shabbat 92a). It is logical that a spiritual leader must be wise. But why should he be wealthy?
There is a high correlation between personal success and effective leadership. An insolvent individual will have difficulty gaining the people’s approval and respect.
When the world is in a more perfected state, wealth is less significant. It is just one of many qualities that contribute to a person’s ability to influence others.
The sin of the golden calf, however, brought about a major deterioration in the world’s moral state. With the spiritual descent from the first set of luchot to the second, wealth became a prerequisite for successful leadership. This quality joined the other attributes and abilities needed in a communal leader.
In the generations after Moses, wealth continued to serve as a crucial buttress for Torah leadership. The Talmud mentions two other pivotal leaders of the Jewish people who combined preeminent scholarship and great wealth:
“From the days of Moses until the days of Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi, the compiler of the Mishnah], and from the days of Rabbi until Rav Ashi [the principal redactor of the Talmud], we do not find Torah and greatness in one individual.” (Gittin 59a)
“Greatness” (gedulah) here refers to wealth. Why did the Sages use the word “greatness”? They wanted to emphasize that this was not simply a matter of affluence. These three Jewish leaders — Moses, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, and Rav Ashi — were distinguished by a quality of greatness that contributed to their extraordinary impact on the people. They themselves were impervious to the temptations of wealth. They were able to harness this resource for its holiest task — to elevate the entire nation.
Moses’ sapphire quarry, as described in the Midrash, is an apt metaphor for the ideal role of wealth. Moses’ supply of rare sapphire stone was the vessel that carried God’s message from Sinai. So too, the wealth of prominent leaders can function as the material basis for guiding and inspiring the people.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, p. 235)