By Rabbi Nachum Aaron Kutnowski
(AJNews) – During the Hebrew month of Elul, a time of profound introspection and self-betterment, we find ourselves preparing for the significant days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. There is historical precedence to this period of self-reflection, looking back on the time when the Jewish nation emerged from the Egypt enslavement, journeying through the desert en route to receiving the Torah on their way to the promised land, the land of Israel.
This journey was sullied by a poignant incident. As Moshe Rabbeinu descended from Mount Sinai carrying the first set of Luchot (Tablets), he confronted the disheartening sight of the people sinning, worshiping the Egel HaZahav, the golden calf. In response, Moshe shattered the Luchot. Etched upon these Tablets were the Aseret HaDibrot, the ten commandments, including the fundamental injunction: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image… You shall not bow down to them or serve them…” (Exodus 20:3-5). The actions of the people were incongruent with the divine words, leading to the fracturing of the Tablets on the seventeenth day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6).
On the first day of Elul, Hashem summoned Moshe to ascend Mount Sinai once again, announcing the beginning of a restorative period (Rashi on Exodus 33:11, second comment). This narrative mirrors our contemporary lives as we metaphorically ascend our personal Mount Sinai, striving to receive the complete set of divine teachings. The climax of this journey culminates on Yom Kippur, the day Moshe returned bearing the renewed Tablets to the Jewish people.
Interestingly, the Gemara states that the Aron, the sacred Ark of the Covenant, not only housed the intact second set of Luchot but also sheltered the fragments of the shattered ones (Masechet Menachot 99a). The perplexity arises: Why should the holiest vessel within the Mishkan, the house of Hashem, carry a constant reminder of the transgression of the golden calf? A profound lesson emerges: Hashem provided us the Torah not because of an inherent angelic nature, but due to our human imperfections. We cleave to the perfection of Hashem through His Torah, embarking upon a journey of self-improvement and spiritual ascent.
The presence of the broken Tablets within the Ark underscores a core precept of our relationship with Hashem – it’s not about the destination, but about the journey. As our sages teach, “In the place where penitents stand, the completely righteous do not stand” (Masechet Berachot 34b). Just as the broken Tablets represented a moment of moral lapse, they also embody the possibility of repair and renewal. We, too, stand in this balance between frailty and potential, seeking to elevate ourselves through the very act of overcoming our shortcomings. Winston Churchill once wisely stated, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” The two sets of Luchot remind us not to allow our failures to obstruct future success.
As we approach the High Holidays, may we take inspiration from the shattered Tablets housed within the Ark, recognizing that our past mistakes do not define us; rather, it’s our resolve to mend and ascend that shapes our spiritual journey. Let us embrace the restorative period of Elul, ascend our personal Mount Sinai, and embrace the divine teachings that guide us towards greater self-improvement and closeness to Hashem. Just as the Ark housed both the shattered and whole Tablets, we house the capacity for growth and transformation within ourselves, carrying forward the legacy of our ancestors and forging a path towards a more meaningful and purposeful life.
As we stand on the threshold of the Jewish new year, I extend my heartfelt wishes for happiness, health, and a sweet year ahead.
Rabbi Nachum Aaron Kutnowski serves as the Head of Judaic Studies at the Halpern Akiva Academy. Holding an honors degree in English Literature from York University of Toronto, along with certificates from the Geneva Centre for Autism and the Lilmod U’Lilamed program of the Consortium of Jewish Day Schools (CoJDS), Rabbi Kutnowski’s fervor lies in fostering an authentic relationship with Hashem, Torah, Mitzvot, and the Jewish people.