The posuk (Torah verse) says, “A tzaddik (righteous person) falls seven times, and rises.” Seven is the number that signifies completeness. In space, there are seven heavens (and seven continents here on this earth, for that matter); the seven days of the week form a complete unit of time. Seven colors merge to form the totality of the spectrum, and in music, seven notes are the wholeness of a scale. Here, “seven fallings” symbolizes totality of failure, utter collapse. A tzaddik falls in the fullest sense of falling, and then rises again.
There are several ways to understand the message of this posuk.
Harav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l suggests that the posuk provides an inspiration to those immersed in the darkness of a struggle. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It is the fall itself, and the subsequent rising, that transforms he who struggles into a tzaddik. If one falls seven time and rises, that makes him a tzaddik.
In another approach, the posuk speaks of the mark of a tzaddik. The trait of a tzaddik is that he perseveres despite numerous and large-scale fallings. One who demonstrates this resilience by rising ever higher no matter how many times or how completely he falls, must be a true tzaddik.
We would like to offer a different perspective – a unique approach that holds within its words a secret, a weapon of infinite worth. We can explain that the posuk comes to teach us how, when one finds himself flat on his face in the most loathsome mud (and for the umpteenth time, too), one can muster the gumption to wipe off the dirt and march onward once again.
How, in fact, can one exude initiative and courage in the face of complete failure? Wherefrom springs the hope? “Sheva yipol” – he fell seven times; how will he get up? Only, whispers the posuk, only if you still see the tzaddik within you. Only then “v’kam,” only then will you rise. That is the message of the posuk – the doctrine of hope that it sings, the wind of strength that it imparts. If one is to rise in spite of utter defeat, he must perceive himself as a tzaddik who may have sinned, but still – in essence a tzaddik. Only then will he have the strength to continue. Once he stops seeing himself as a tzaddik, and begins to view himself as a sinner, all is lost – for what, indeed, can a sinner accomplish?
A parallel message emerges from between the clouds of a storm.
The sight of a rainbow brings with it the opportunity to recite a rare blessing. Blessed are You… Who remembers the covenant, and is faithful in His covenants, and upstanding in His word. A rainbow is the symbol of the covenant Hashem enacted with Noach. After the Flood, He swore never to destroy the world again. When the people of the world would anger Him enough to warrant annihilation, Hashem would instead spread a rainbow across the heavens as a symbol of His pledge.
One cannot help but be struck by the seemingly blatant incongruity. How odd it seems that the symbol of Hashem’s anger at Earth, who deteriorated in her ways to the point of deserving destruction, is the spectacular beauty of the Heavens displaying their palette. How utterly inappropriate it seems! Wouldn’t it be more fitting (not to mention effective), if a frightening roar of thunder or an ominous rumble of an earthquake marked Hashem’s displeasure? What is the meaning of this apparently incompatible symbolism?
The rainbow sings the same whispered song as the posuk in Mishlei, transmits the same doctrine of hope, carries the same wind of buoyancy and courage.
For if indeed the earth would tremble with volcanic eruptions when her inhabitants sin so dreadfully as to deserve destruction, surely, they would be struck by the gravity of their deeds, but it would paralyze them. As the full force of their evil and the terrible punishment that they really deserve would wash over them, they would fall into a pit of despair. What monsters they would see in themselves, what vile beasts! They would fall prey to the ready claws of hopelessness, and lose all belief in their ability to improve and amend.
Instead, Hashem unrolls a parchment of majesty across the horizon, showing a Face of beauty and love, even at the darkest moment of harsh reproof. In a message that transmits strength and hope, Hashem instills within us the perspective that we are truly good and upright people who have only fallen far, far from the true loftiness of our souls, and have but to turn around to live once again true to the purity of our real selves. He allows us to see ourselves as tzaddikim who have slipped, thus giving us the strength to go on. Though we may have fallen completely, entirely – “seven times” – to the point of deserving destruction, “he is a tzaddik, and he rises” – Hashem teaches us to view ourselves as individuals of piety and virtue, and therefore, we can rise again.
In fact, we can add that at this very time, when Earth and her dwellers have hit rock bottom, so to speak, not only does Hashem temper His rebuke with a face of light and love, but He actually shows this radiance in its ultimate fullness. The seven tiers of the spectrum symbolize the peak of magnificence and beauty. That is the sign Hashem, in His great love, spreads over His world, just when it has angered Him to the point that only His word of truth prevents its total annihilation.
Another posuk, this one at the end of Eichah, says it in pithy, but profound words.
“Bring us back to You, Hashem, and we will return.”
Why do we need Hashem to bring us back? If we are indeed willing to do teshuvah ourselves, then let us do so. If not, how can we ask Hashem to return us to Him?
A child of mine once found himself the object of firm disciplinary measures. After several minutes, he ran to my arms, and through heaving sobs, cried, “Tatty, I want to do teshuvah (repent).”
Why did the child come to me? Why didn’t he simply do teshuvah?
The child was in essence saying, “Tatty, if despite the error of my behavior, you can still love and accept me, you can still take me back into your embrace, you can still perceive me as one who can do teshuvah, then I can, indeed, mend my ways. But if you hide your face from me in this moment of weakness, if I am not worthy of your support and acceptance, then I am too weak; from where will I draw the spiritual strength to do teshuvah?”
So do our hearts cry to Hashem, “Tatty, ‘Bring us back to You’ – we want to do teshuvah, but we can’t; we simply haven’t the spiritual strength, without seeing some sign that we are still worthy of Your love and acceptance. So we implore You, bring us back; show us a hint of Your desire and trust in us. Then, and only then, ‘We will return’ wholeheartedly.”
In Shir Hashirim, the posuk says, “Mashcheini acharecha narutzah” (Draw me, and I will run after You). As the Mefarshim (Commentaries) interpret, this is the voice of our People, parched with love, crying thirstily to our Beloved. “Mashcheini” – You draw me toward You with even the slightest hint of desire, and I – “acharecha narutzah” – I shall respond in double measure, running after You with great yearning.
Perhaps we can add that the posuk also implies, “I want to run after You, to return to our bonds of love, but only after mashcheini, after some show of Your desire and acceptance, then acharecha narutzah, can I find within myself the ability to come after You.”
The rainbow is Hashem’s message of reassurance, the symbol of His everlasting love, acceptance, and hope in us. Whether it appears in quiet beauty, a small arc shyly reaching over the clouds, or in magnificent glory, a bold bow glowing overhead, the rainbow penetrates even the blackest darkness, spreading its implicit words of hope: Even in your state of shame, your moment of sin, there is yet glorious beauty within, only waiting to be revealed through the purifying waters of teshuvah. And even as you stand in weakness and humiliation, His Eyes see only that ultimate beauty, as reflected in the seven brilliant layers shining in the Heavens.
The two pesukim of plaintive pleading that we mentioned in connection to teshuvah have a subtle but profound difference.
In the first posuk, we ask Hashem, “Return us, Hashem, to You.” In our state of contrition and shame, we implore You for perhaps a sigh, a breath, a murmur of hope. We need some demonstration that despite out deeds, Your love for us yet burns, You still see us as essentially worthy and good, You await our return, arms outstretched in acceptance. With that reassurance, “we will return.”
There are times, however, that “returning us” is not enough. When we have fallen far enough, so sunken in the sinful sludge, a small sign will not suffice. The mud in which we are entrenched will, in all likelihood, obstruct our vision to the point that such a sign would go unnoticed. In any case, at that point, we would feel so hopelessly low that what is adequately reassuring for “return us” simply cannot convince us that despite the severity of our sins, Hashem flows with desire and acceptance for us. In this case, we beseech, “Draw us,” pull us out of this swamp; draw us toward You with iron chains. And here – when that miracle finally comes – when we see a flower blossom from lifeless desert sand – when Hashem responds to the call of “draw us” with an overture that touches our very souls – when we are indeed convinced of our worthiness, our untainted status as His Beloved – we respond with a volcanic eruption of passion. No, in this case, it is not merely “And we will return.” When one drowning in the grip of engulfing quicksand sees a hand, when nostrils that know only noxious air find a peephole of oxygen, one does not merely walk over and accept this new chance at life. One runs with a speed he knew not possible, and seizes the light in an unyielding grasp. When we’re in a rut so low that we must call “mashcheini, draw us,” we respond with the passionate “acharecha narutzah, we shall race after you!”
By Rabbi Yisroel Berenbaum
-  Mishlei 24:16.
-  Bereishis 9:13-17.
-  5:21.
-  1:4.
-  See Rashi, Metzudas Dovid.