Parashat Teruma- Changing the Past
Parashat Teruma begins with G-d’s instruction to Moshe to oversee the collection of materials from Beneh Yisrael for the purpose of constructing the Mishkan and all its various furnishings.
The Midrash, commenting to the beginning of the Book of Vayikra, tells that Moshe felt distressed over the fact that he did not contribute anything towards the Mishkan. Although he oversaw the process of collecting donations and building the Mishkan, he did not give any materials, and this troubled him. G-d reassured Moshe, telling him, "Your speech is more beloved to Me than all the donations." The words Moshe spoke were more precious than all the expensive materials which Beneh Yisrael donated for the Mishkan.
What exactly are these words that Moshe spoke, and why were they so precious? Moreover, why, in fact, did Moshe not participate in the donation of materials for the Mishkan?
The Hatam Sofer (Rav Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839) offers a remarkable explanation of the Midrash’s comments. He writes that Moshe did not participate in donating materials because the Mishkan was necessary in order for Beneh Yisrael to achieve atonement for the sin of the golden calf. Quite obviously, Moshe did not participate in this sin, and so he did not require atonement. Therefore, he did not donate any materials. But if so, the Hatam Sofer then asks, why did Moshe feel uneasy? Why was he distressed about not participating in the donation of materials – if the reason he did not participate in this project is because he did not participate in the grave sin of the golden calf?
The Hatam Sofer answers this question by noting the Gemara’s famous teaching about the incredible power of sincere, genuine repentance. The Gemara tells us that if one repents "Me’ahaba" – out of true love for Hashem, and not merely out of fear of punishment, then not only is his guilt erased, but his sin is transformed into a source of merit. G-d is so compassionate that He does not merely forgive – but He actually credits us for our wrongful actions if we repent for them wholeheartedly, out of a desire to draw closer to Him. Similarly, the Gemara teaches that "the place where penitent sinners stand – even the completely righteous cannot stand there." Ba’aleh Teshuba – sinners who have genuinely repented – occupy a very special place, and are on a very high level, as their sins are retroactively changed into Misvot.
To illustrate how far this extends, the Hatam Sofer writes that if a person ate non-kosher food for many years, and then sincerely repents – then each and every act of eating non-kosher food is transformed into the consumption of the Korban Pesach in Jerusalem on the night of Pesach. Every sinful act becomes a precious Misva if one repents with complete sincerity.
It turns out, then, that Beneh Yisrael’s worship of the golden calf, after they repented, was retroactively converted into the devoted service of Hashem. In essence, the golden calf turned into a Mishkan. By sincerely repenting for worshipping the golden calf, Beneh Yisrael made it as though they had done a great Misva by worshipping the Almighty.
This, the Hatam Sofer explains, is why Moshe Rabbenu felt distressed. He saw Beneh Yisrael’s repentance and realized that they now achieved a higher level than he could, as he had not committed the sin of the golden calf.
G-d therefore reassured Moshe that his share was no less than that of the rest of the nation. After all, it was his "words" – the words of rebuke spoken to the people, and his impassioned prayers on their behalf before G-d – that facilitated their repentance and allowed them to earn atonement. True, they reached great heights through their repentance – but this was made possible by Moshe, through his strong leadership, his teachings, and his prayers.
One of the commentators to the Megilla writes that the Misva to feast on Purim is intended to commemorate the huge feast hosted by Ahashverosh, as we read in the beginning of the Megilla. The Gemara teaches that G-d brought upon the Jews the threat of Haman’s decree as punishment for their having participated in this feast. And yet, we commemorate, and even celebrate, this feast each year on Purim – because once the Jews wholeheartedly repented, their participation in that feast became a Misva. To borrow the words of the Hatam Sofer, the Jews’ feasting in Shushan retroactively became like their consumption of the Korban Pesach in Jerusalem!
Teshuba gives us the ability to change the past. No matter what mistakes we have made, we can change, and Hashem wants us to change. This was true at Mount Sinai, after the sin of the golden calf, and this was true in Persia, after the Jews took part in Ahashverosh’s feast – and this is true even today, for each and every one of us. We should never feel discouraged when we fail. Instead, we should feel empowered by the institution of Teshuba – and embrace the opportunity Hashem compassionately gives us to change the past and move forward to a better future.