Knowing that his own life's journey will end before the people enter the land of Israel, in this week's double Torah portion of Nitsavim- Vayelekh Moses' gathers the people for one final address. He tells them: …If you return to God, and listen to God's voice, doing everything that I Moses am commanding you today… God will be waiting in love to help you with the return, he will show compassion, he will help you to re-settle in a Godly world, he will bring you to the land of Israel which you will inhabit. (based on Deuteronomy 30:1-10)
A beautiful, poetic, and moving description of the Jewish people's return to their covenant with God and their commitment to Torah along with a parallel return from exile to the land of Israel.
The very next verses (Deuteronomy 30:11-12) continues, "For this mitzvah which I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach." ‘it is not in heaven,' and ‘it is not too baffling.' In other words, says the Torah, this command, whatever it is, is in your grasp and is right in front of you. This mitzvah? One command? In the singular? Shouldn't it say all the mitzvot? What about the rest of the Torah? And, which mitzvah are we talking about?
This is the conversation that captures the imagination of the medieval commentators. For the 13th century Spanish commentator, Nachmanides, the answer is easy. For him, the most striking feature of the ten verse passage is that the verb lashuv – to return – the same root as the word teshuvah (literally returning but often translated as repentance) appears again and again. In fact, though few, if any, english translation do justice to the translation, there are actually seven different instances of the word, referring both to the Jewish people returning to God and God's word, as well as God approaching us and bringing us back to the land of Israel.
As a result, Ramban understands this drama of loss and return and of exile and redemption as the essence of the commandment to do teshuvah; to repent, to mend our ways, to assess and improve our behavior. Certainly, on the last Shabbat of the current year, our marching orders are clear and the message is timely.
Understood this way, our individual and collective engagement with teshuvah play out the collective returning to our people's roots, to our values, and to the original return to the land of Israel.
Pounding our chest, naming the dozens of categories of sin, beating ourselves up – that's just not the goal. Our invitation to engage in teshuvah is more than simply recounting our wrongdoings or begging for leniency from others or from God. Rather, says Ramban, Our actions and misactions are both part of who we are AND the missteps, well, they are acts done when we are locating ourselves in a place other than home. In fact, the Hebrew words for these acts – chet and averah – both have this significance. Chet comes from the same verb as "to miss a target." Averah, like the English word "transgression," means "to cross a boundary, to enter forbidden territory, to be in a place one should not be."
In our most honest of moments, we know that sometimes our actions do indeed alienate us, distancing us from ourselves, from others, and from God, leaving us in a place different than we would like to be or even should be. We become like aliens, living in a land that is no longer our own. With this insight, it is not so difficult to see the Torah's image of exile as the extreme outcome of such misaction.
But, we don't have to stay there. At the core, our deepest most innermost self, our soul, is immutable. Real teshuva, help us reconnect to that untouched self, reestablish our lives upon its foundation, and even redefine a negative past with holy light. Through honest engagement, we make possible new decisions, new behavior that returns us to the intrinsic purity of soul with which we began our sojourn in this world. And, we play out our own return to God and contribute to the changing course of Jewish history made possible by our collective efforts in returning.
Remember, the Torah's words? "For this mitzvah which I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach." ‘it is not in heaven,' and ‘it is not too baffling.' This command, whatever it is, is in your grasp and is right in front of you.
Now is the time and the invitation is ours. Ken yehi ratzon – so may it be. Shabbat Shalom and from all of us at the Ziegler School, Shanah Tovah.