Skip to main content

Individual Repentance and National Repair

Text file

Translated by Kaeren Fish





            The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 571:1) states:


It is customary to arise at midnight to recite Selichot and supplications from Rosh Chodesh Elul onwards, until Yom Kippur.  However, the Ashkenazi custom is different: from Rosh Chodesh onwards they begin sounding the shofar after the morning prayer.


This is based on the Tur (ad loc.):


We learn in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer: On Rosh Chodesh Elul, the Holy One told Moshe, "Ascend the mountain to Me" – and it was then that he ascended to receive the second set of tablets, and the shofar was sounded throughout the camp.  Moshe ascended the mountain in order that they would not be led astray again to idolatry, and the Holy One was exalted by that shofar, as it is written (Tehillim 47), "God goes up with a teru'a…"  Therefore, the Sages ruled that we should sound the shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul every year, and throughout the month, in order to urge Israel to repent, as it is written (Amos 3), "Shall a shofar be sounded in the city [and the people not be afraid?]"




Let us attempt to recreate the scene during that month in the Israelite camp.  The distance between "You shall be chosen unto Me" and "Leave Me, that I may annihilate them," was very short.  A sense of failure had pervaded Israel from the 17th of Tammuz, when Moshe shattered the tablets, until Rosh Chodesh Elul.  Benei Yisrael could not forget the moment when Moshe stood and prayed for them, while they were in seized by profound frustration.  Then Rosh Chodesh arrived, and God told Moshe to ascend Mount Sinai once again.  However, the anxieties were still present.  It appeared that God had forgiven them and was prepared to "forget" the sin of the golden calf, but the nation still worried: just as God could put aside the sin of the golden calf, perhaps He could also put aside the great revelation of "I am the Lord your God."


She said to Him: "Master of the Universe – if there is no forgetfulness before Your throne of glory, perhaps You will never forget my part in the episode of the golden calf?"

[God] answered, "These, too, shall be forgotten" (Yeshayahu 49:15).

Then she said to Him: "Master of the Universe – if there is indeed forgetfulness before Your throne of glory, perhaps You will forget my part in the Revelation at Sinai?"

He answered: "And I shall not forget you" (ibid.). 

This is what Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rav Oshaya: What is the meaning of the words, "These, too, shall be forgotten?" This refers to the episode of the golden calf.  "And I shall not forget you" – this refers to the Revelation at Sinai." (Berakhot 32a)




From this midrash in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer we learn an interesting lesson.  The midrash teaches that the shofar was sounded when Moshe ascended for the third time, in order that the nation would not go astray after idolatry.  How is it possible that there was still any danger of idolatry? Forty days had passed since the debacle of the golden calf, and Am Yisrael had already undergone a process of teshuva, repentance.  Their only concern, at this stage, was what would become of the experience of the Revelation.  How, then, is it possible that it was now necessary to sound in shofar in order that they would not be led astray after idolatry?


It seems that in order to understand this midrash, we must first understand the motivation for the golden calf.  According to the view of many of the Rishonim – especially Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi – Benei Yisrael were certain that they were on the correct path; they felt a need to do something.  Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi explains that they possessed an overabundance of initiative; they regarded themselves as especially religious.  How could they keep silent for forty days after the Revelation at Sinai? Benei Yisrael sought something tangible; they were looking for religious experience.  The giving of the Torah was not a spiritual experience.  It was prophecy, transmitted to them in awe and terror.  They were now looking for an experience, and they followed their feelings.


It was for this reason that Moshe was afraid that the nation would sin.  He already knew that they would not fashion another calf – but perhaps they would make something else, based on a feeling that they had to find some way of expressing their emotion.  Perhaps they would find some other means of expression that would also be idolatry.  Therefore God commanded that the shofar be sounded, telling them: Every form of idolatry is wrong! It is not religious experience that you should seek, but rather to fulfill what God commands.  Kavana (intention) is not enough; one must carry out the actions that God tells us to perform.




The Torah explains how we should go about repairing past failures.  The process involves two stages, corresponding to God's commands to Moshe to ascend the mountain to receive the second tablets.


            First, God told "Carve for yourself two tablets of stone."  While the first tablets were inscribed by God Himself – "engraved by the finger of God" – here we are told that Moshe had to carve them himself.  The same applies to teshuva.  You cannot just rely on the atmosphere around you; you cannot suffice with the "Elul" feeling.  Carve for yourself! From now, the tablets are no longer a Divine creation.  And the engraving upon them is not Divine script.  Thinking about teshuva is admittedly a positive thing, but in order to turn a process around, to change a personal trait, to chart a different course – one must hew deeply into oneself.


            The second stage is "No one shall ascend with you, nor shall anyone be seen anywhere about the mountain."  For the giving of the first tablets, God commands: "You shall ascend, and Aharon;" now – "no one shall ascend with you."  The first tablets were given amidst thunder and lightning; now there is silence.  Everything emanates from the deepest recesses of the soul; everything takes place quietly, in private.


Moshe is ready to ascend Mount Sinai, thinking that he has already remedied Benei Yisrael's sin.  He believes that they will no longer have any desire to go off seeking religious experiences; that all they will be interested in now is what God says.  He ascends to receive the second set of tablets, which he is supposed to bring down on Yom Kippur.  But before God gives him the tablets, He tells him that there is an important message that he must pass on to the people:


God passed over before him, and proclaimed: "The Lord, the Lord; mighty God, merciful and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in kindness and truth, preserving kindness to thousands, forgiving sin and wrongdoing, but by no means clearing iniquity, visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children and upon the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." And Moshe made haste and bowed to the ground and prostrated himself. (Shemot 34:6-8)


"God passed over before him and proclaimed" – Rabbi Yochanan said: Were it not for the fact that this is written in the Torah, it would be impossible to say!  This teaches us that the Holy One wrapped Himself like a prayer leader and showed Moshe the order of prayer.  He told him, "Whenever Israel sins, LET THEM PERFORM this order before Me, and I shall forgive them." (Rosh Ha-shana 17a)


            What is the meaning of the expression, "Let them perform this order before Me?" The ancient Sages taught: It is not enough to talk; one must do.  We must cleave to God's attributes.  Each personal attribute and trait must be translated into practical action, and everything begins with inter-personal relations.  Benei Yisrael thought that only the relationship between man and God was important, that the problem was only idolatry, and that avoiding this was the most critical thing.  But it is impossible to achieve full atonement and forgiveness from God, and to receive the Torah, if these thirteen attributes do not penetrate the consciousness of the nation and of the individual.


Concerning R. Yishmael's dictum, "Receive every person joyfully" (Avot 3:12), Rambam teaches: "One must receive every person – whether small or great, whether a free man or a slave, every member of the human race – joyfully…"


Teshuva begins between man and his fellow.  It starts at home, and in the way I act towards other people – whether they are great or small, whether they share my culture or not.


People are so good at criticizing and analyzing, judging everything that happens.  On the other hand, they are also good at whitewashing, at justifying their own behavior.  When it comes to other people and what they do, it's the ability to criticize that comes to the fore.  When it comes to my own actions, I have a long list of excuses.  During these days, we must reverse this situation! We must be critical of ourselves, and excusing of others.  We must receive everyone joyfully.  The Gemara in Ketubot (111b) teaches:


Rabbi Yochanan said: One who shows the whites of his teeth [i.e., smiles] to his friend is better than one who gives him milk to drink, as it is written: "…and teeth are whiter (lavan shinayim) than milk" - do not read "lavan" but rather "libun shinayim," i.e., whitening [or showing the white of] one's teeth.


We live in an alienated world.  The way out of alienation must begin with us. 


Now, during these days of Selichot and Divine compassion, we must relive that first Elul – that awareness of failure, the hewing of the tablets, the inwardness.  Let us therefore begin to recite and internalize the attributes God taught Moshe.


Allow me to share with you a personal feeling.  I have experienced the Days of Repentance during three very different periods in my life. 


The first period was one in which Jews in the Diaspora lived in peace and quiet.  The level of anti-Semitism was bearable.  No one worried about what was going to happen in the future.  There were some Zionists who spoke about the Jewish collective, but only as an ideal.  Everyone worried mainly about himself – who would live and who would die, who in his time and who before his time.


Then came the Holocaust, when everyone focused on his own personal survival.  Who spoke about the Jewish collective, the Jewish nation? People were worried about living to the next day.


Afterwards, when the State of Israel was founded, people turned their attention to the survival and condition of the People of Israel.  This year especially, we are in a period in which our concern is not for our own personal survival.  Despite the constant threat of terrorism – may the Holy One protect us – in Israel we aren't worried about "What will happen to me?"  Our main worry is: What will happen to Am Yisrael? What will happen to the State of Israel? What about Eretz Yisrael?


In such a period, a person thinks: When there are such great worries, what does it matter if I'm a little better or a little worse? Is that really the issue – my personal problems? There are huge national problems! We don't want to feel that we are putting aside all of Am Yisrael's worries and focusing only on ourselves. 


We must be strong, and remember the Gemara that teaches:


Rabbi Yochanan said: Great is teshuva, for it brings redemption.  As it is written (Yishayahu 59), "A redeemer shall come to Tzion, and to those who turn from sin amongst Yaakov": What is the reason that "a redeemer shall come to Tzion"? Because of "those who turn from sin amongst Yaakov." (Yoma 86)


Here the prophet speaks of redemption, but not the full and final redemption.  There is also everyday redemption.  The final redemption is an exalted level, but first there is the redemption on the everyday level.  We, with our personal teshuva, are doing something for all of Israel.  Our teshuva is not cut off from what is happening to Am Yisrael; it is all connected!


Therefore, our personal introspection is not divorced from national concerns.  It represents, in fact, active participation in the issues and concerns of the nation as a whole.


Let us pray to God that He give us the strength to remedy our faults and to return to Him wholeheartedly.  May the Holy One send forgiveness, pardon and atonement to us and to all of Israel, and inscribe both Am Yisrael and each one of us for a good year.


(This sicha was delivered on the first night of Selichot, Elul 5764 [2004].) 




This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!