The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40 plus year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
This week’s d’var Torah is dedicated in honor of the marriage of Elana Kreitman and Michael Kahn.
Shabbos Mevorchim Chodesh Elul falls out either on Parshas Re’eh or, on occasion, on Parshas Eikev. The themes of repentance and free will to return to Hashem connect these parshiyos to Elul. The central theme of Selichos is the repeated recitation of the 13 attributes of mercy revealed to Moshe when he received the second Luchos. Each of the three 40 day periods spent by Moshe on Mount Sinai associated with the receipt of the Luchos was defined by a unique prayer, as described in the union of stories related in Ki Tisa and Eikev. The first was prior to descending Mount Sinai with the original set of Luchos, the second when he returned to ask forgiveness and the third when he returned to retrieve the second set of Luchos. Moshe says that Hashem accepted his prayers and agreed not to destroy bnei Yisrael after each of his prayers. Why did Moshe have to pray three separate times for the same thing? Why was the third prayer necessary if Hashem had already given him the second set of Luchos?
The first prayer of Moshe was Vayechal, where Moshe’s petition was that no matter how bad bnei Yisrael were, the Egyptians were worse. The Jews should not be destroyed lest the Egyptians rationalize their defeat during the exodus. Hashem agreed and suspended the immediate judgment and sentence of destruction. When Moshe descended the mountain and saw the golden calf he decided to break the Luchos. He reasoned that the Luchos were the marriage document between Hashem and knesses Yisrael. If they would accept that document they would be obligated by the laws of the Sinaitic covenant and would be deemed to have violated them with the eigel and punished accordingly. Moshe decided it was better to leave them in their unconnected state vis-à-vis Hashem and broke the Luchos. When the Jews saw what Moshe had done they realized their sin and began to have thoughts of repentance.
Moshe ascended the mountain a second time. Now, not only did he have to ask for forgiveness, he had to convince Hashem, so to speak, to renew the covenant with the people. Moshe’s original prayer suspended the execution of judgment, but he could not ask for forgiveness while the Jews were still dancing around the eigel. By breaking the Luchos, the covenant was broken. Hashem told Moshe that he agreed not to destroy them – “l’hashmid” – but there was no requirement to grant them a second covenant. They can exist like any of the many nomadic tribes that roamed the desert, all of whom disappeared and played no role in the divine direction of the world. As to the promise to the patriarchs to give them a Torah and Eretz Yisrael, Moshe’s children will multiply and after many generations eventually they will receive the Torah.
Moshe prayed for 40 days that not only should they not be destroyed physically, but that they should be granted a new covenant and reacquire their status of am ha’nivchar without reservation. At the end of his efforts he was rewarded with a command to hew new tablets, as Hashem forgave them. They were re-granted their important role in the divine plan. Moshe said Hashem did not desire “hashchisecha.” That verb, l’hashchis, does not mean to destroy physically. It indicates an undermining and dismissal of someone or something, an emotional or spiritual destruction. For instance an ineffective educator is considered a mashchis as s/he causes a student to abandon the potential each child has that is waiting to be nurtured and developed. The confidence of a person who has invested great effort into preparing a masterful lecture can be destroyed by the words of a jealous colleague, a mashchis. The resulting lack of confidence will cause the next lecture to indeed be inferior.