3 Weeks and 9 Av: Holding on to Teshuva

Nov 17, 2014
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Rabbi Eliezer Kwass

Every Tammuz we read about the Parah Adumah (red heifer) in Parshat Chukat closely preceding the Seventeenth of Tammuz. Perhaps this is an example of the “cure preceding the disease”, for, according to Rav Aibo in the Midrash, the Parah Adumah is the atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf (that brought about the breaking of the tablets on the Seventeenth of Tammuz). Rav Aibo (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8) illustrates the connection with a parable. “The baby of one of the court maidservants dirties the floor of the palace. Says the king, ‘Let the mother come and clean up her child’s filth.’ Similarly, the Parah Adumah (the mother) atones for (cleans up the filth of) the Golden Calf (the child).”

The obvious apparent problem with this Midrash (as the Alsheich and others points out) is that the Torah explicitly tells us that the Parah Adumah’s purpose is to purify one who has become impure through contact with the dead (tamei meit). The Midrash, explains the Alsheich, must be based on the following steps:
1. The sin of the Tree of Knowledge brought death into the world.
2. Israel finally rose above death when they received the Torah at Sinai, but the sin of the Golden Calf brought it back.
3. Purification for impurity through contact with the dead (tumat meit) is therefore identical with atonement for the Golden Calf.
In short, the sin of the Golden Calf is like the sin of the Tree of Knowledge.

At first glance, this comparison seems tenuous. Israel dancing around the Golden Calf seems to be so different from Adam and Chava succumbing to the snake’s temptation. What is the similarity the Sages build on?

It is not so much the sins, but the sinners who were similar. Both sins were committed by the perfect, pure, and innocent. Adam and Chava were newly created perfect beings, and the people of Israel at Sinai had reached the level of Man before the sin. Rashi (Bamidbar 19:22), quoting Rabbi Moshe the Darshan, explains why the Parah Adumah had to be “completely and perfectly red” (temima). “Israel were complete and perfect and became flawed (baalei mumin). Let this come and atone for them so they can return to their perfection.” The loss of innocence is particularly tragic; the first sin – whatever it may be – alters the person’s identity from that of a pure tzaddik to that of a sinner.

The comparison is very striking. Whereas Adam and Chava were created pure and perfect; just ninety days earlier the people of Israel were, our tradition teaches us, on the forty-ninth level of impurity. Still, because the Torah considers the true penitent equal to, and even higher than the tzaddik, Israel were equal to Adam and Chava before the sin. The tragedy of the sin of the Calf was that after doing such a thorough and amazing teshuva, the Jewish people did not hold on to it.

We commemorate this tragedy by fasting on the Seventeenth of Tammuz over the broken tablets, the symbol of our destroyed perfection. Perhaps the special message of the Seventeenth of Tammuz is, “We must hold on to our Teshuva.” We must protect our (and our childrens’) innocence, purity and newfound perfection, not break our tablets. Doing Teshuva and holding on to Teshuva can be quite different challenges. The path to Teshuva is often a difficult one, but has a romantic side to it. It involves exciting transformations and dramatic life changes. Holding on to Teshuva can be less exciting and demand a different set of skills. Creating a lasting life of avodat Hashem that will not break down in moments of weakness necessitates developing ingrained good habits, setting down roots in a Torah community, learning with devotion, and working hard on our inner lives.

But what if one does not hold on to Teshuva? What if one breaks a commitment, falls back into problematic habits, or lapses into old behavior patterns? What if the tragedy of the Golden Calf occurs? The Parah Adumah teaches us that purity and innocence can be regained. The Parah Adumah atones for the Golden Calf. But it is a process that demands humility (Rashi – one who was high like a cedar must lower himself like a hyssop) and total restructuring (Rashi – just as the Golden Calf was totally burned so is the Parah Adumah). We hope, of course, to never have a need to regain our purity and innocence. That, however, requires learning how to hold on to teshuva and working hard at doing it, not making the mistake of Israel with the Golden Calf and Adam and Chava with the Tree of Knowledge. We are told, though, never to despair, for there is always a Parah Adumah.

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