Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, JTS Rabbinic Fellow
August 31, 2002 23 Elul 5762
This past week, I received a Save the Date card for my tenth reunion at Colgate University. As I stood in amazement, waxing sentimental about my years as an undergraduate and writing the date on my 2003 calendar, I realized just how fitting was the timing is of this announcement. Elul, the Hebrew month preceding the High Holidays, resembles a college reunion Save the Date card. Both spark times of great expectation when we think of shared experiences and look forward to renewing old friendships and gathering in a special place to reunite. As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach, we encounter sacred time in the Jewish calendar. Even though the path to God is always open to us, we perceive that this, more than usual, is the time of reunion with God. God, at this point of the year, is willing to hear our hopes and dreams, cries and supplications.
With all of the tragedies of this past year, however, it is difficult to feel God's protective presence. September 11 and the continued terrorist attacks on Israel leave us wondering: "Where is God in the midst of our suffering?" Our double parashah this week, Nitzavim–Vayelekh presents one theology – that God is hiding. The Etz Hayyim Humash relates a powerful Hassidic story which speaks to our mindset today: Dov Ber of Mezeritch once found his young child crying "I was playing hide–and–seek with my friends," the child explained, "and I hid so well that they stopped looking for me and went away." Dov Ber mused, "This must be how God feels, hiding the divine countenance from us to the point where some of us stop looking – and start living our lives without God." Have we, in Dov Ber's words, stopped looking for God and begun living our lives without God? And if so, how is it that we can find God in our lives and in our world once again?
In its exquisite wisdom, the Torah provides the cure before the illness. Parashat Nitzavim emphasizes the importance of teshuvah (translated as "repentance" but literally meaning "return"). The leitwort (leading word) of the beginning of chapter 30 of Deuteronomy is the Hebrew, shav, "return." "And when you return to the Lord your God and you and your children listen to His voice with all of your heart and all of your soul according to that which I command you this day, then the Lord your God will return your fortunes and have mercy on you, and He will return and you will be gathered from the nations that God dispersed you to, from there, the Lord your God will gather you and from there He will take you" (Deuteronomy 30:2–4). The word "return" is repeated three times in the course of three verses which speak volumes about the process of teshuvah. The verse eschews human passivity, underscores the importance of listening with all of one's heart and soul, opens the possibility that God also needs to do teshuvah, and promises ingathering: a personal process of introspection and self–ingathering will lead to national return and redemption.
Counter to our prayerful declaration as we return the Torah to the ark (hashivenu Adonai alekha v'nashuvah) "Return us Adonai to you and then we will return," the verse rejects this passive approach that waits for God to do the work for us. Humans are much more powerful than we are willing to admit, and certainly that is true with teshuvah. Often, we wait for others to approach us rather than initiating the difficult conversation. The Torah tells us that we as individuals must take the first step in the arduous journey of repentance. Overcoming one's ego and sense of having been wronged are often the two obstacles to this first step.
The Torah also expects that as we travel down the path of repentance we will educate our children to do so too. "You and your children must listen to His voice with all of your heart and all of your soul... ". The path to teshuvah is worthless if it ends with ourselves. Parents, teachers, and all adults can never forget that we are models for a younger generation. Rather than passing on destructive patterns that only continue a violent cycle, the Torah opens the door to creating growth and change as the opportunity to return to the next generation of Jews.
Moreover, our verse declares that teshuvah is a serious enterprise. Teshuvah as the Rambam points out cannot be half hearted: "A sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart, never to commit them again. As Isaiah 55:7 states, 'May the wicked abandon his ways... 'Similarly, he must regret the past as Jeremiah 31:18 states: "After I returned, I regretted" (Rambam Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:2). As is the case with loving God, heart and soul must be united in the endeavor of teshuvah.
The nuanced wording of our verse is radical. Professor Ze'ev Falk, z"l, points out that our sages of blessed memory gave special significance to a brief interlude in the verse, "and He will return." The rabbis say, "it is not written that God will 'restore' but rather will 'return,' for even God's Presence is in exile and in need of teshuvah." (Falk, Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 474).
How is God in need of teshuvah?
Abraham Joshua Heschel presents one answer in an eloquent poem (Source: Kaplan and Dresner, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness):
Yet, sometimes, rain drops like a tear,
God's confession to the world – I feel sad, embarrassed,
For God Himself and for our own sake.
Still our pain demands: have mercy!
Instead of tears give help, action not regret.
Every hope should be Your command
And every shudder – an alarm.
Let us, men, dogs, and God
Atone together and return
Or do penance for one another.
Forgive us God our sins
And we shall forgive You of Your own.
For hiding God's Presence, for God's silence in the face of suffering, God is in need of teshuvah.
May we give each other strength in the remaining days of Elul to overcome internal obstacles to forgiving and seeking forgiveness for other people. May we be passionate about seeking God with all our hearts, souls and might. And as we set out to find God, may God's Presence reach out to us. This would truly be a sacred reunion.