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Shabbat Parashat Vayeilech 5773

Parashat Hashavua: The Higher the Nation, the Harder the Repentance

Harav Shaul Yisraeli – based on Siach Shaul (Yamim Noraim), pg. 213-6

Wisdom is necessary for teshuva (repentance), which is why the blessing of wisdom precedes that of teshuva in our prayers (Megilla 17b). The Ten Commandments were written on two different luchot (tablets), first on divinely prepared luchot and later on humanly hewn stones. The first were broken, while the second ones, necessitated by the sin of the Golden Calf, remain. The seven weeks before the giving of the Torah and the first luchot are now days of mourning. During the seven weeks preceding the giving of the second luchot (Yom Kippur) we read the prophecies of consolation. The stability of the acquisition of Torah came specifically after sin required people to deepen their understanding of their spiritual status. Teshuva was created before the world came into existence, and therefore, sin can serve as the basis for spiritual growth.

Yonah was afraid that the people of Ninveh would repent because the nations are “close to teshuva” (Tanchuma, Vayikra 8). Wouldn’t we think that specifically Bnei Yisrael would be closer to teshuva? When a famous gemara describes Bnei Yisrael’s horrible failure to curb their idolatry, it refers to Bnei Yisrael as “His sons.” In that lower state, shouldn’t they instead have been called servants?

Even when Bnei Yisrael act wickedly, they still possess a greatness that makes them worthy of the title “sons.” There are sins that come from lowliness and sins that come from greatness. The sin of the Golden Calf was specifically perpetrated by the ‘Generation of Knowledge,’ for only such a generation of such a nation could have done so. The cause of sins of greatness is the feeling of such internal goodness that one does not feel the need to accept the authority and be a servant of Hashem. In asking for the calf, we see that even with their terrible mistake, they could not picture a situation in which they would not be connected to an ideal. The problem was that they wanted to craft the ideal for themselves, which cannot work because a person consists of coarse physical qualities and not only fine ones.

Tehillim describes that sin as, “they switched their honor with the image of a bull eating grass” (106:20). They got confused between man’s exalted spiritual content and his points of resemblance to an animal. While one should not reject his animalistic side, he must realize that a bull eats all that is around him. Where are all the ideals that the people thought they were maintaining?

It is very difficult to fight bad that is intermingled with good, i.e., evil desires cloaked in ideals. That is why the nations are close to teshuva, as their sinfulness is much clearer.  For us, success in teshuva comes only after one can see sin’s pitfalls, as we read in the haftara (Hoshea 14:2): “Return to Hashem for you have stumbled in your sin.” That is why Hashem waited until the sinning had developed to tell Moshe to descend from Mt. Sinai. Then Moshe was able to break the luchot and demonstrate the people’s undeniable need for teshuva. When not only the high religious concepts were being violated, but people had started trampling the basic principles of human decency, the door to teshuva was opened.

If during the first 40 days Moshe was on Mt. Sinai, the people were nervous what decrees he would bring down with him, the last 40 were accompanied by anticipation of the dictates they now understood were needed. This period ended with Yom Kippur, a day that is, with all its solemnity, a festive time.

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