The first time Moshe Rabbeinu ascended
The Chiddushei HaRim answers that although Moshe Rabbeinu had already received the tablets once, the second time was very different. The first time he received the tablets as a tzadik who had not sinned. The second time, he received them as a ba’al teshuva – a penitent. Chazal teach us that a ba’al teshuva is on a higher level than one who has never sinned. Therefore, when Moshe Rabbeinu accepted the second luchos, the acceptance was different, the preparation for it was different and his experience was different.
Moshe Rabbeinu, though, did not sin. How then, could he have been on the level of a ba’al teshuva? The Sfas Emes gives two answers. The first answer is that although Moshe Rabbeinu did not sin, the sin of the golden calf was of national import. Most of the nation did not worship the golden calf yet the entire nation was punished. Therefore, the subsequent repentance was also on a national level and affected the entire nation including Moshe Rabbeinu.
The second answer is based on a deeper understanding of repentance. Conventionally, we think of repentance as remorse. The sinner is sorry that he sinned and undertakes not to sin again. In Hebrew, though, the word for repentance – teshuva – means return. Sin distances one from God. Repentance returns the sinner to God again. This is the true meaning of repentance.
The Sfas Emes understands according to this, that this aspect of teshuva is possible even without sin. When our souls are sent into this world, they are more “distant” from God than when they existed only in spiritual realms. The physical world acts as a screen which hides God. The reason the physical world hides God is because it seems to exist outside of Him. It seems to be autonomous. The way we “return” to God is by realizing that this is an illusion that God created. We think that we ourselves exist autonomously outside of God. We have desires and needs. These may at times conflict with God’s desires. The more powerfully we feel our own existence as being autonomous of God, the more we are distant from Him.
The way to “return” to God is by realizing that our autonomy is also a created illusion. When we internalize this concept, we subordinate ourselves to God’s will and come close to Him. The Sfas Emes learns this from the red heifer – parah adumah. The red heifer must be totally burnt. Only its ashes can be used to purify the spiritually impure. This, the Sfas Emes teaches, is a metaphor for our complete subordination to God in order to return to Him.
The result of repentance is a return to the previous state of closeness to God. As well, we can all "return" to the state of our soul before it was sent into this world by realizing this truth and subjugating our desires to God's. May we merit it!