There are two types of people. The first sees tragedy; the other sees opportunity.
If his home goes up in flames, the first would reflect on the beautiful home that was; the second would contemplate the even more beautiful home that can soon be.
Replacing the Shattered Tablets
As we approach Simchat Torah, the culmination of the High Holidays, we reflect on the holiday season that just passed. The High Holiday season actually begins on the 17th of Tammuz, the day that marks the beginning of the destruction of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
On this day we mourn the lost glory of our past, and yearn for the restoration of our Holy Temple. Acknowledging that our ancestors were exiled from our land for their sinful behavior, we strive, from this day onward, to mend our ways.
The 17th of Tammuz also marks the day that Moses destroyed the first set of Tablets. Climbing down Mount Sinai, Moses beheld the terrible sight of his nation dancing around a golden calf. Swiftly concluding that they were no longer worthy of their divine mandate, he hurled the Tablets to the ground. This sin was the beginning of a long slide that culminated with the second tragedy marked on this day—the destruction of the Temple.
Mindful of these two tragedies, we initiate a period of repentance that extends till Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the new year. On this day G‑d sits in judgment, and we beseech Him to judge us favorably.
Our fate remains uncertain till Yom Kippur, the day deemed by history as the day of atonement. On this day G‑d forgave our ancestors for the sin of the Golden Calf, and consented to provide Moses with a new set of Tablets. On this day, He forgives us too.
The circle closes. What began on the day the Tablets were shattered ends on the day the Tablets were replaced. What began as a drive for repentance ends with absolute atonement. This positive conclusion is a cause for celebration, and we do indeed rejoice. We launch into the holiday of Sukkot, a festive time of joy and celebration.
A Sudden Reversal
As we dance our way through the holiday, we revel in our newfound piety and enjoy our status as G‑d’s righteous people. Indeed, the festivities culminate on the last day with a celebration of G‑d and Torah. We rejoice with G‑d, and G‑d rejoices with us. We celebrate with the Torah, and the Torah celebrates with us, the people who embraced it.
It is fitting that we chant the final portion of the Torah on this festive day. The verses ring with praise for Moses and his people. An ode to our nation, to our strength and spirit. An ode to Moses, to his prophecy and leadership.
The last climactic words are finally chanted: “The awesome power that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:12). “Chazak,” we then declare, “We are strengthened.”
Wait. Just a moment. What were those last words again? What was the awesome power that Moses performed before our eyes? Our sages teach that this was the power with which Moses shattered the tablets.
What? That again? I thought we were past that. That was the beginning of the journey. This was supposed to be its culmination! Are we turning the clock back?
The Purpose of Sin
This goes to show that Torah is aligned with the second group. The one that views tragedy as potential opportunity, and a sinner as a potential penitent.
The Talmud teaches that our ancestors were compelled, by a divine force, to worship the Golden Calf. They were in a pious state after receiving the Ten Commandments, and would not have betrayed G‑d had He not compelled them to. He did this to demonstrate the power of repentance.
Lest we breach our relationship with G‑d and despair of repenting, the sin of the Golden Calf demonstrates the potency of repentance. Repentance brought us back even from the brink of idolatry. Not only did it repair our bond, but it made it stronger than ever before.
Just as a rope is sturdiest where it broke and was knotted back together, so is a relationship strongest when it was betrayed and then repaired. The process of repentance began for our ancestors when Moses dropped the Tablets. The Torah does not see that as a moment of failure, but as the moment the healing began.
At the height of our celebration, when we are most confident in our own piety, we are reminded of the power of repentance. Lest we sin again, we are reminded to never despair.
Sin closes one door, but opens another. It closes the door to piety, but opens the door to repentance. The latter is far larger than the former. Rather than perceive our sins as barriers, we are encouraged to view them as opportunities for repentance.
The Circular Dance
This is why we dance in a circle on Simchat Torah. The scholar and the ignoramus, the pious and the not-so-pious, all in one equal circle. A circle has no beginning and no end, no high point and no low point; all are equal in a circle.
On this day we are reminded that the ignorant and the wicked are not sinners, but potential penitents. It is not a question of if, bur rather of when. On that day they will not join the scholarly and pious ranks, but surpass them.