The Talmud relates1 that the Jewish people were incapable of committing the sin of the Golden Calf on their own, for they had mastered their evil inclination.2 Rather, the sin was “a decree of the King, so as to provide an opening to penitents. For a sinner might think that repentance is of no avail. He is therefore shown that G‑d accepted the penance of even those who committed the heinous sin of the Golden Calf.”3

“So as to provide an opening to penitents” refers not only to later generations; it also afforded the Jews of that time the opportunity of achieving repentance.4

Repentance is not a manner of service that a sinless person can choose. Quite the contrary: “He who says, ‘I shall sin and then repent’ is not afforded the opportunity to repent.”5 It is only after a person has sinned that he is provided with the opportunity to repent.

Nonetheless, the service of repentance is so great that it contains certain merits which are lacking even in the service of the truly righteous, as our Sages say:6 “The level attained by penitents cannot be achieved by the completely righteous.”

In order for the Jews who experienced the giving of the Torah, and consequently became truly righteous, to also experience repentance, it was necessary that there be a “decree of the King.” Only this enabled the evil inclination to gain temporary dominance over them; they could then experience the tremendous elevation of penitence.

One of the qualities of repentance that is lacking in the service of the completely righteous arises from the fact that a righteous individual is only capable of elevating those sparks of holiness that lie within permissible matters. His approach to evil is one of negation; it is impossible for him to transform it into holiness.

However, a sinner can, through complete repentance, effect the transformation of misdeeds into merits.7 Thus, he not only negates evil, but is able to elevate the holiness that was trapped within it.

This difference between the service of a completely righteous individual and the service of a penitent results not only from the fact that the righteous individual simply lacks sins to transform; it is also related to the difference between their methods of divine service.

The service of the truly righteous individual is that of revealing G‑dliness within the world. Since evil as it exists within the world conceals and opposes G‑dliness, the righteous individual negates it.

However, the service of the penitent elevates the physical world into the realm of the holy. He is thus cognizant of the world not as something that opposes G‑dliness, but rather as it is looked upon from Above.

The same is true regarding evil: Penitents realize that G‑d’s ultimate intent is not merely the negation of evil, but the transformation of it — through repentance — into good, thereby elevating the divine spark concealed within.

G‑d’s giving of the Torah revealed G‑dliness in a manner that transcended the corporeal world; a Jew’s repentance engages the corporeal world and transforms it into G‑dliness.

Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XVI pp. 412-414.