Friday, September 26, 2008

Nitzavim (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this at September 2006.

The Turning

Parashat Nitzavim is always the final one of the year and, whether fortuitously or by design, the major mitzvah presented therein is teshuvah, the idea of return to God. Reading the Chapter on Turning (Parshat ha-Teshuvah; Deuteronomy 30) closely, one notices several interesting things. The root שוב, “to turn/return,” repeats itself many times, in different ways: as reflecting upon something—literally, “turning it over” in your mind; as the act of teshuvah, turning or returning to God; as God turning, i.e., changing His mind, and having mercy on us; of His returning us to our land, after the punishment of Galut has been completed; and so on.

The first of these usages is interesting. The opening verse says “After all these things [i.e., those foreseen in the great Rebuke of Deut 28] befall you, the blessing and the curse… and you turn it over in your heart [while you are among] the nations where God has expelled you. Then you shall return to the Lord your God.” This is reminiscent of the verse in Deut 4:39, where we are told to “know this day and reflect in your heart that the Lord is God, in heaven above an in earth below, there is no other.” Here, there is an interesting three-part process: “all these things”—i.e., Exile and the concomitant suffering—befall you; these events cause you to reflect; and only then, it seems, will you return to God. That is, there is a connection between bad things happening and teshuvah: ordinarily, people don’t change, don’t abandon their habitual life pattern, don’t become more serious about ethical and religious principles, unless they undergo some sort of shock or trauma, whether as individuals or as a community, that shakes them out of their complacency. It may be a collective event, like exile or pogrom or war, or a personal crisis such as illness, financial troubles, death of a near one, or even—as in the dramatic repentance of the notorious profligate Eleazar ben Dordai, in Avodah Zarah 17a—being told (by one of his paramours!) that “You know, you will never be accepted back in teshuvah.”

The second half of this chapter articulates the utter simplicity of teshuvah. “It is not in the heavens, it is not across the sea, but very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart” (vv. 11-14). There is nothing abstruse or esoteric about it; it is a simple choice between life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse. The “turning” to God is not anything difficult to comprehend or know—it is a simple switch within oneself, as to how to live one’s life.

And in truth, if we’re honest with ourselves, teshuvah is usually a very simple thing: each person has to search out his own heart. We all know what our failings are in life, what we most need to do to change within ourselves. The problem is not one of knowledge, but of will, of laziness, of giving up certain immediate pleasures. If a person somehow examines himself without any peniyot, somehow disregarding his own ulterior motives and interests, in as objective a way as possible, he/she will usually see clearly—indeed, with painful clarity—where one has failed, or fallen short in living one’s life as one ought.

These ideas are at times rejected by modern people, because all the talk of repentance, atonement, confession, cognition of sin, seems too much focused on guilt. But in truth, teshuvah may be read as hithadshut, self-renewal or as “turning,” and not as self-castigation for every past “crime or misdemeanor.” The focus is on the future, not the past: to abandon the faulty path of the past, not to dwell on it, and to accept new ways for the future.


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