Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Yom Kippur

“A Second Chance”

Imagine a very important project in which you were once involved. It could have been at work, in school, or in your personal life. You gave it your all. You used all the resources at your command, involving many other people, spending quite a bit of money, and investing a lot of your own time and energy. You were confident that you had done everything possible to guarantee the success of this project.

Then, out of the blue, the whole project fell apart. It collapsed beyond any hope of repair. Perhaps some material essential to the success of the project was no longer available. Or it might have been the sudden illness of one of your key employees that made it impossible to meet the deadline. Or, quite possibly, someone else had the same idea for a project, and got it to the market before you could.

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. I refer to the tragic episode in the Torah portion of Ki Tisa (Exodus, Chapter 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 of God. Instead, he found the people dancing with abandon around the Golden Calf. Surely, his disappointment was as great as those of us whose more mundane projects failed. 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, and He was doing so for all time and eternity.

The Sages of the Talmud tell us that this surprising instruction, this command to Moses to carve a second set of tablets, the sublime encouragement to give the people a second chance, occurred on the day of Yom Kippur. Moses shattered the tablets on the 17th day of Tammuz, and the second tablets were given on the 10th day of Tishrei.

This is a lesser-known aspect of the significance of Yom Kippur, but a very important one. 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 eloquently contended, well more than 1,000 years ago, that the second tablets were superior to the first in no less than seven ways. Interestingly, Rabbi Saadia’s arguments are dismissed by the great commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra, who, in his commentary on Exodus 34:1 considers them to be as “trivial as a dream.”

But Rabbi Saadia’s arguments remain convincing to me, for one. 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 far more important lesson that the second chance contains an element of “good” so that we can achieve far greater levels of success than we ever imagined the first time around.

Second chances are “good,” perhaps precisely because we can learn from the mistakes which characterized the first chance, correct them, and transcend them.

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 chance, and a better chance.