As we go further into the month of Elul, the idea of teshuva, repentance, is on everyone’s minds. After a year filled with so many mistakes, how are we going to work on ourselves? Is teshuva a realistic possibility?
There is a beautiful story in Masekhet Shabbat (88B), told to us by Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi, which I find very encouraging, and I hope you will too. I’ll paraphrase it with some subjective commentary.
The story goes as follows:
When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, the angels were unhappy.
“What is a human doing here?”, they asked God.
“He’s here to receive the Torah”, God replied.
“You’re going to give your precious and treasured Torah to a human? “What is…a mortal, that you should think of him?”(Psalms 8:5)
Rather, give it to us in heaven, since you are the one “that puts your glory on the heavens” (ibid. v.2)!
“Answer them!” God said to Moses.
“Master of Universe”, Moses answered, “I’m afraid they’ll burn me with their breath!”
“Then take hold of my throne- since it will protect you- and then answer them!”
Moses did so, and turned to God, speaking so that the angels could hear.
“Master of the Universe: What’s written in the Torah that you’re giving to me?”
“I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of Egypt (Ex. 20:2).”, God answered.
Moses turned to speak to the angels. “Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved by Pharaoh?”
The angels had not been, and they were silent.
“Then why should the Torah be given to you?”, Moses demanded.
“What else is written in it?”, he asked.
“”Remember the Sabbath to sanctify it (Ex. 20:8)”, God replied.
“Do you work” Moses asked the angels, “so that you must rest on the Sabbath?”
The angels were again silent.
“What else is written in it?”
“Honor your father and your mother (ibid. v. 12)”.
“Do you have a father or mother?” Moses asked the angels.
“What else?”, he continued.
“Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. (ibid. v. 13)”, God said.
Moses turned to the angels again. “Are you envious? Do you have an evil inclination?”
At this, the angels immediately admitted that Moses was
right; the Torah was intended for humans.
There are many things we may learn from this story, but we’ll focus here on certain key elements as they relate to doing teshuva.
1. We’re human, and that’s OK. God gave us the Torah, even though sometimes we want to murder, commit adultery, and steal. We even do these, and other terrible things. We’re flawed, and God gave us the Torah anyway.
2. This being the case, we also have to know that God is not only letting us hold on to His throne, in order to help us; He believes in us, that we can stand on our own two feet.
God doesn’t answer on behalf of Moses. He offers Moses help, and Moses is able to justify receiving the Torah on his own.
The Torah is like God’s throne in the story- there are many challenges in our lives, external and internal; but the Torah helps us navigate these challenges and make judgement calls ourselves. This is only possible because God has faith in us that we can actually do this.
When we do teshuva, we shouldn’t forget that it’s OK to be human. We don’t need to be down on ourselves for making so many mistakes, or think that we need to be perfect come Yom Kippur day. Only a flawed being can be commanded to improve or repent. We’re not angels, and as we continue to work on ourselves, we have to remember that it’s OK- God believes we can succeed.