Second chances

Second chances

Yom Kippur | Leviticus 16:1-16:34

Imagine a very important project in which you were once involved. You gave it your all. You were confident that you had done everything possible to guarantee the success of this project.

Then, out of the blue, the whole project collapsed beyond any hope of repair. We have all had experiences such as these, in which an endeavor we had every reason to believe would succeed just blows up in our faces.

What is the typical reaction to such disappointment? The average person just gives up, thinking that it would be futile to start all over. Only a truly exceptional individual will explore the possibilities of trying again, of giving the entire undertaking a second chance.

In order to justify the reaction of this exceptional individual, and in the interests of making a case for the notion of a second chance, I ask you to consider the single most important project in which Moses was involved — the tragic episode in the Torah portion of Ki Tisa (Exodus, Ch. 32).

This is surely one of the highlights of Moses’ career. He ascended Mount Sinai and was given the two stone tablets, engraved with the Ten Commandments by “the fingers of God.” He came down from the mountain and no doubt imagined that the people of Israel would gather ecstatically to receive this gift. Instead, he found the people dancing with abandon around the Golden Calf. He gave voice to his shattered dreams by shattering the sacred tablets.

The despair that Moses felt at that moment was dispelled by the surprising instruction he heard from the Almighty: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.” (Exodus 34:1)

The Almighty was saying to Moses, “Try again.” He was enunciating the possibility of a second chance.

The Talmudic sages tell us that this surprising instruction to carve a second set of tablets occurred on Yom Kippur. The essence of the nature of the day is that the Almighty gives us the opportunity for a second chance.

One wonders whether the second chance, the second set of tablets, were equal to the original one. We would understandably guess that the second was inferior to the first. After all, second chances usually are second best.

How inspiring in this regard are the words of Saadia Gaon, who contended, more than 1,000 years ago, that the second tablets were superior to the first in no less than seven ways. He believes that the very fact that the second tablets were given on Yom Kippur, a holy day, and not on the 17th of Tammuz, a weekday, itself speaks to their superiority.

Among the discrepancies between the first and second tablets, Rabbi Saadia notes one in particular that demonstrates the superiority of the latter. Careful students of both versions of the Ten Commandments will note that the word “tov,” good, does not appear at all upon the first set of tablets. Only in the second set, in the fifth commandment, do we have the phrase, “l’maan yitav lecha — so that it will be good for you.”

Rabbi Saadia helps us expand our understanding of Yom Kippur. On the very anniversary of the giving of the second tablets, we learn of the availability of a second chance. But we also learn the more important lesson that that chance contains an element of “good,” so that we can achieve far greater levels of success this time and correct and transcend our mistakes.

As we enter this holiest day of the Jewish calendar, let all of us who have experienced failure and disappointment recognize the availability of a second — and better — chance.

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