Regardless of the challenges we may face or the mistakes we may make, there is always an opportunity for renewal and growth. Through sincere Teshuvah, we can transform our shortcomings into strengths, our transgressions into merits, fostering a deeper and more profound connection with God. * On the third reading of Parshas Eikev.
As we approach the High Holidays, a period of reflection and renewal, let's journey back in time to a critical period in our people's history - a 120-day saga that embodies the themes of covenant, sin, repentance, and forgiveness. This saga, though it took place over 3,000 years ago, still resonates deeply with us today. It starts on Mount Sinai, with Moses ascending the mountain to receive the first set of tablets with the Ten Commandments, the embodiment of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
In the third section of Parashat Eikev, we find Moses recounting to the Israelites the sequence of events that followed their grievous sin with the golden calf. He speaks of his first 40-day sojourn on Mount Sinai, the catastrophic fallout that ensued, and his subsequent 80-day period on the mountain, which included both pleading for Israel's forgiveness and receiving the second set of tablets. The verse you quote, "And I fell down before the Lord, as before, forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all your sins you had committed, by doing evil in the eyes of the Lord to anger Him" (Deuteronomy 9:18).
By understanding the narrative's structure, divided into three stages, each consisting of 40 days and what they represent, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the concepts of covenant, sin, repentance, and forgiveness.
FIRST 40 DAYS (SIVAN 7 TO TAMMUZ 17)
According to the Book of Exodus (19:1-3), Moses first ascends Mount Sinai on Sivan 7. God entrusts Moses with the first set of tablets, which represent the foundational covenant between God and the Israelites, the Torah. Moses then stays on the mountain for 40 days and nights, as the Torah states (Exodus 24:18). This idyllic period ends abruptly when Moses descends and witnesses the Israelites worshiping the golden calf. In his despair, Moses shatters the tablets (Exodus 32:19). The first covenant seems lost.
SECOND 40 DAYS (TAMMUZ 18 TO AV 29)
Shocked by the sight of Israel's betrayal, Moses is determined not to abandon his people. On Tammuz 18, he ascends Mount Sinai for a second time to plead for Israel's forgiveness (Exodus 32:30-34). For another 40 days and nights, Moses engages in fervent prayer and fasting, embodying the spirit of repentance. As described in Deuteronomy (9:18-19), he beseeches God's mercy until Av 29. This is a period of intense reflection and supplication, a testament to the power of repentance and intercession.
THIRD 40 DAYS (ELUL 1 TO TISHRI 10)
On Elul 1, with hope and determination, Moses embarks on his third and final ascent. God instructs Moses to carve a new set of tablets and, during this period, re-inscribes the Ten Commandments upon them. This is a powerful demonstration of God's forgiveness and the renewal of the covenant. As Rashi comments on Exodus 34:1, God's willingness to provide a second set of tablets is a profound demonstration of His enduring love and commitment to His people, despite their earlier transgression.
After another 40 days, Moses descends with the second set of tablets on Tishri 10, Yom Kippur (Exodus 34:28-29). This day henceforth becomes synonymous with atonement and forgiveness. As the Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 26b highlights, "on Yom Kippur, the Torah was given (the second time) to the Jewish people."
As we delve deeper into the spiritual significance of these three stages, teachings from Chassidus provide profound insight. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his seminal work the Tanya (Igeret HaTeshuvah, Chapter 4), explains that the process of Teshuvah (repentance) is not merely about returning to the state before the sin, but rather it's an opportunity to reach an even higher spiritual level. He explains that through Teshuvah, "the blemishes will be not only erased, but transformed into merits."
This teaching sheds new light on our understanding of the three stages of Moses' ascents. The first 40 days, symbolizing the initial covenant, were followed by a period of sin and then repentance. However, in the third ascent, we see the transformative power of Teshuvah, as the sin of the golden calf is not merely forgiven, but it leads to a renewed and stronger relationship with God, as symbolized by the second set of tablets.
As we stand on the cusp of a new year, let us internalize this powerful message. Regardless of the challenges we may face or the mistakes we may make, there is always an opportunity for renewal and growth. Through sincere Teshuvah, we can transform our shortcomings into strengths, our transgressions into merits, fostering a deeper and more profound connection with God. Let's carry the enduring lessons of these 120 days into the coming year, as we each ascend our personal Mount Sinai, striving for spiritual growth and renewal.