Another brilliant insight from Rabbi Art Green on the High Holy Days.
According to one tradition, Rosh Hashanah occurs on the anniversary of the giving of the second tablets. As you probably remember, God gave Moses one set of the 10 Commandments, but Moses smashed them in anger when he saw the people building the Golden Calf. So, God had Moses carve out a second set of tablets, upon which He wrote the Commandments, again.
Why would we celebrate one of our holiest days on anniversary of, shall we say, not one of our finest moments? We only received the second tablets because of a combination of our terrible disobedience and Moses’ uncontrolled anger. Not exactly an auspicious occasion.
In fact, Green teaches us, that’s the perfect day for this kind of holiday. Because, as another tradition teaches us, the real lesson from these two sets of tablets is about the need for compromise and the acknowledgement of human imperfection. The first set of tablets were completely made by God: God carved the tablets of stone, and God wrote the words on them. Therefore, they represent God’s unadulterated, pure will. Perfection incarnate.
That’s why they didn’t “work.” No person, and certainly no people, could be expected to live up to such high standards. We were doomed to failure by unrealistically perfect expectations.
The second set of tablets were a joint project. They were created by Moses and God, together. And so they symbolize a more attenuated version of God’s will. Perfection, filtered through our imperfect reality. And, because of that, a more attainable target.
The High Holy Days, with their focus on teshuvah (repentance), are about trying to get ourselves to be better. To stop making the mistakes, and willful failures, of our past, and instead be the kind of people that we want to be, and that we’re supposed to be.
But, there's a difference between acknowledging where we have fallen short of our goals, and striving to be better, on the one hand, and demanding perfection of ourselves, while beating ourselves up for every little failure, on the other. One of those can lead to self-improvement, the other seems likely to end in frustration, and quite possibly in giving up out of hopelessness. And that is going to do us, or God, any good at all.