Imagine an important project you were once involved in — at work or school or in your personal life. You gave it your all, using all the resources at your command and investing a lot of time and energy. You were confident you had done everything possible to guarantee the success of this project.
Then — the whole thing fell apart. Perhaps some material essential to the project’s success was no longer available. Or the sudden illness of one of your key employees made it impossible to meet the deadline.
What is the typical reaction to such disappointment? The average person gives up, thinking it would be futile to start over. Only a truly exceptional individual explores the possibilities of giving the undertaking a second chance.
To make a case for the notion of a second chance, I offer the most important project Moses was involved in, as described in the Torah portion Ki Tisa (Exodus, chapter 32).
In surely one of the highlights of his career, Moses ascends Mount Sinai and receives from “the fingers of God” the two tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments. He comes down from the mountain only to find the people dancing around the Golden Calf. He gave action to his disappointment and shattered dreams by shattering the sacred tablets.
The despair Moses felt was dispelled by the surprising instruction 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,” enunciating the possibility of a second chance, for all time and eternity.
The sages of the Talmud tell us that this surprising and sublime command to give the people a second chance occurred on Yom Kippur. Moses shattered the tablets on 17 Tammuz, and the second tablets were given on the 10th of Tishrei.
This is an important aspect of the significance of Yom Kippur — that the Almighty gives us the opportunity for a second chance.
We might guess that the second set of tablets was inferior to the original. In fact, Saadia Gaon contended well over 1,000 years ago that the second set was superior. He believes that the very fact that the second tablets were given on Yom Kippur, a holy day, and not on a weekday, itself speaks to their superiority.
Rabbi Saadia notes one discrepancy in particular that demonstrates the superiority of the latter set: that the word tov, good, does not appear upon the first tablets, but does in the second, in the fifth commandment, in the phrase “l’ma’an yitav lecha,” “so that it will be good for you.”
As we enter this holiest day of the Jewish calendar, the anniversary of the giving of the second set of tablets, we learn the value of a second chance, which may contain an element of “good” so we can achieve far greater levels of success than we ever imagined the first time around.