September 29, 2023
September 29, 2023

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How can we stand before God and do teshuva, repent, after all of our mistakes and follies?

The answer comes from last week’s parsha, Nitzavim, which means literally standing. Standing between the scathing rebuke of the tochacha in Ki Tavo, and the covenantal song of Haazinu is Parshat Nitzavim. All of Bnei Yisrael stand attentively, listening while Moshe explains all of the potential consequences for not following the various mitzvot in the Torah.

Bnei Yisrael are terrified.

At this precise moment, Moshe tells them how to return to God. No fewer than seven times over 10 verses (30:1-10), Moshe emphasizes their ability to return to God, utilizing the root s.v.b—shuv, return. This frequency of the word shuv is by far the highest in all of the Torah. The word is the root of teshuva, but why is this word included so many times here? Is it really necessary?

When the relationship between God and His people looks irreparable, that is precisely when we need to know that God is right there and waiting. Not only that, but Moshe continues in Devarim 30:11 by informing the Jews that not only is God waiting for them to return, but this return is actually a mitzvah (according to the Ramban). Understanding precisely how Bnei Yisrael must be feeling right now, Moshe continues that this mitzvah isn’t something wondrous or distant. Teshuva isn’t hiding in the heavens, such that someone would need to go up to the heavens and bring it down for us and show us how to do it. Nor is it on the far side of the sea, such that someone else would need to be brave in order to deliver and instruct us about it. It is close to you; it is within the grasp of your mouths and hearts to do it.

We, as a people, have not always taken teshuva as a given. On the afternoon of every fast day, we read the words of Yeshayahu in the haftarah, wherein God explains that His ways and thoughts are unlike those of humanity who don’t believe in repentance; rather even the wicked can leave their ways and return to God. (Yeshayah 55:6-8) Yechezkel expresses a Divine declaration that the Jews claim that God’s path of mitzvot is impossible, but God responds that the path of sin and rebellion is the impossible one. (Yechezkel 18:29) Returning to God is within our grasp.

At the same time, our Sages have acknowledged a miraculous aspect of teshuva. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Makkot 2:6) presents the following parable:

They [the Sages] asked Wisdom, “What is the punishment for the sinner?” Wisdom responded, “Misfortune pursues the sinner” (Mishlei 13:21).

They asked Prophecy, “What is the punishment for the sinner?” Prophecy responded, “The person who sins, he alone shall die” (Yechezkel 18:12).

They then asked God, “What is the punishment for a sinner?” God replied, “The sinner should repent and receive atonement. That is why the verse says, ‘Therefore He shows sinners the way.’ (Tehillim 25:8) This is the path of repentance.”

This parable illustrates the perspective that the concept of teshuva is beyond all reason. We should not be able to erase the ill effects of our actions. If it wasn’t for God Himself saying that it works and is a mitzvah, not even the wisest of men or the most inspired prophet could make heads or tails of it.

As we saw above, this impossibly beautiful mitzvah, this unique opportunity, is bookended by the frightening covenant of the tochacha and the harrowing treaty of Haazinu. We are given this chance to return, knowing just how great the divide between the reward for serving God and punishment for failure can be. Whoever we are, from the loftiest of leaders to the weary woodcutters and water drawers, God is showing us the path. The only real question is whether we will take that first step in the right direction.

Rabbi Metzger teaches at three gap year programs for young women in Israel. He can be reached at [email protected].

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