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.
Mazal To the Plittman family on Mechi’s forthcoming marriage to Aliza Greenberg.
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Shabbat M’vorchim, Chodesh Elul usually occurs on Parshat Re’eh, but on years that Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat it occurs on Parshat Eikev. The concepts of repentance and free will connect these parshiot to Elul. The central theme of our penitential prayers, selichot, is the repetition of the 13 attributes of mercy, revealed to Moshe when he received the second luchot. Each of the three 40 day periods Moshe spent on Mount Sinai was defined by a unique prayer, as described in the union of stories in Ki-Tisa and Eikev. The first prayer was vayechal, recited prior to descending Mount Sinai with the original set of luchot, the second when he returned to ask forgiveness for the golden calf, and the third when he returned to retrieve the second set of luchot. Moshe said Hashem accepted each of his prayers, and agreed not to destroy Bnei Yisrael. Why did Moshe have to pray three separate times for the same thing? Why was the third prayer necessary if Hashem already gave him the second set of luchot and apparently forgave Bnei Yisrael?
Vayechal was a tactical prayer by Moshe. How could he ask for full forgiveness if the golden calf was extant and the Jews dancing around it? He had to play for time and forestall any quick punishment for their sin that would eliminate them. Moshe’s petition was that no matter how bad Bnei Yisrael was, the Egyptians were worse. The Jews should not be destroyed lest the Egyptians rationalize their defeat during the exodus, by denying Hashem’s omnipotence and ability to bring the Jews to the Promised Land. Hashem agreed and suspended the immediate judgment and sentence of destruction.
Upon descending the mountain and seeing the golden calf, Moshe decided to break the luchot. He reasoned that the luchot were the marriage contract between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael. If they would accept that document they would be bound by the laws of the Sinaitic covenant, and would be deemed to have violated them with the eigel and punishable accordingly. Moshe decided it was preferable to leave them un-joined from Hashem and broke the luchot. When the Jews saw what Moshe did they realized their sin and began to have thoughts of repentance.
Moshe ascended the mountain a second time. His task now was most difficult. Not only did he have to ask for forgiveness, he had to convince, kavayachol, Hashem 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, tantamount to tovel v’Sheretz b’Yado, immersing in a ritual bath while maintaining constant contact with the very object that causes the defilement. By breaking the luchot, the covenant was broken. Hashem told Moshe that he agreed not to destroy them, l’Hashmid, but he was not obligated 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, which granted them the 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 also they should be granted a new covenant and reacquire their status of am ha’Nivchar, the chosen nation, without reservation.