The Parsha Nitzavim is always read in close proximity to Rosh Hashana and the "Days of Awe" in general.
This choice of reading is not coincidental; rather, the division of the parshiot is carefully constructed to insure that certain messages are conveyed at specific junctures of the calendar.
During this season teshuva ("return to God") is in the air; personal and collective introspection are the order of the day. In this context, it is evident why this Torah, Nitzavim, is the chosen message.
The term "return" (teshuvah) and its Hebrew root (shav) are utilized in numerous verses:
And it shall come to pass, when all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you shall return to your heart [while in exile] among all the nations, where the Lord your God has driven you. And you shall return unto the Lord your God, and shall obey his voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul. Then the Lord your God will [re]turn your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the nations, where the Lord your God has scattered you...And the Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and he will do you good, and multiply you above your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live. ... And you shall return and obey the voice of the Lord, and do all his commandments which I command you this day. And the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in every work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your land, for good; for the Lord will again rejoice over you for good, as he rejoiced over your fathers. If you shall listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the Torah, and if you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul. (Deut. 30:1-10)
The repetition of the term "return" is a peculiarity which has served as a challenge for the classical commentators, who sought to explain the various "returns" -- both on the part of man and the part of God.
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TOTALITY OF HISTORY
One solution offered is that the text refers to the totality of history: it includes various exiles, from the Ten Tribes through the eschatological ingathering and the end of days.
The Hebrew words shav and teshuva have often been translated as "repentance," yet the Hebrew word teshuva is both more powerful and more simple.
"Repentance" is derived from the word "penance," which primarily means "remorse." The feeling of remorse may be private, personal, even egocentric, describing the feelings of an individual who knows that he has failed himself, and perhaps his family or society. When a person feels remorse and utilizes these feelings to spur action, or at least a resolution to redouble his efforts and not return to his erroneous ways, we call this process "rehabilitation."
The only thing lacking with the process we have described is God. The Jewish concept of return is a return to God. It is a theocentric phenomenon, which serves, in most cases, to heal an egocentric perspective. The defining verse is found in this week's Torah portion and was cited above: "And you shall return to the Lord your God."
Teshuva is a gesture which returns man to his pure state ? by virtue of connecting him with God. This idea lies behind the insistence of the rabbis thatteshuva possesses a metaphysical identity. Teshuva, they say, is not part of this world; it predates creation:
Six things preceded the creation of the world; some of them were actually created, while the creation of the others was already contemplated ... Rabbi Ahabah ben Rabbi Ze'ira said: "Repentance too, as it is written, Before the mountains were brought forth, and from that very moment, You turn man to contrition, and say: Return, children of men." (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 1:4)1
When God was about to create man, the Torah remonstrated, saying: "Should man be created and then sin and be brought to trial before You, the work of Your hand will be in vain, for he will not be able to endure Your judgement." Whereto God replied: "I had already fashioned teshuva before creating the world." (Zohar Genesis 134b)2
Prior to the creation of the world, God created an idea called teshuva -- a process that brings man in touch with God, the definitive metaphysical being. Thus, an idea which eluded many great philosophers becomes clear.
Secular philosophy cannot grasp the possibility that remorse can uproot past transgressions. If existence were exclusively physical, the question would be appropriate. However, Judaism insists that there is a metaphysical reality called God, who created and sustains the universe.
Additionally, God created a procedure which allows man to relate directly to Him. As God transcends time, so can man's relationship with God transcend time, rendering yesterday's failures a blot in a black hole of time, irrelevant to one's current relationship with God, which is itself transcendent. This is the power of teshuva.
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This metaphysical relationship may explain several other teachings in this week's Torah portion, and help explain the dynamics of the future redemption. Parshat Nitzavim begins with a covenant drawn between man and God:
You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel... That you should enter into covenant with the Lord your God, and into his oath, which the Lord your God makes with you this day. That he may establish you today for a People to himself, and that he may be to you a God, as he has said to you, and as he has sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath. But with him who stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him who is not here with us this day.(Deut. 30:9-14)
The idea of a covenant "with those not here" is of particular interest. The various commentators explain that this refers to future generations still unborn. They, too, must live up to their side of the covenant or suffer expulsion. In that event, the Torah speaks of the eventual return of man to God.
And [you] shall return to the Lord your God, and shall obey his voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul.
The idea of "both you and your children" returning to God seems strange. Either you or a subsequent generation will need to return, why both? In a terse, enigmatic statement Nachmanides says that a great mystical secret centers around the teaching that the Son of David cannot come until all the souls are completed. His source is a passage found in numerous places in the Talmud:
Rabbi Assi stated: "The Son of David will not come before all the souls are completed; since it is said, For the spirit that wraps itself is from Me, and the souls which I have made. (Yevamot 63b)3
The ultimate return will take place when all souls reach completion. These souls represent both past and future generations, all of which are part and parcel of the metaphysical nature of the Jews'relationship with God.
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Rav Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav Me'Eliyahu volume 4 page 120) explained this concept by citing a mystical teaching that in the generations prior to the arrival of the Messiah, there are precious few "new" souls, the majority being "used," incomplete souls who have returned in order to complete their task.
Other 20th century mystics have attempted to "explain" the Holocaust by stating that prior to redemption all souls need to be elevated. The generation of people who died in the desert, despite seeing the work of God with greater clarity than any other generation, failed to sanctify God's name. Therefore they needed to return, and die performing a sanctification of God's name.
However, it is also taught in this week's Torah portion, that there are many things that defy explanation:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah. (Deut. 30:28)
Rav Yehonatan Eybshitz combines these teachings when he explains the significance of the verse:
That then the Lord your God will [re]turn your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the nations, where the Lord your God has scattered you. (Deut. 30:3)
Rav Yehonatan Eybshitz writes:
This refers to the birth pangs of the Messiah which will be in close proximity to the redemption, [which are so severe] that many sages said "Let him [The Messiah] come, but let me not see him" (Sanhedrin 98b). The reason is that the Shechina is with us in exile (Megila 29a) taking care of us like a mother cares for a child. At the time of the redemption the Shechina will not return together with us at one time; rather, first the Shechina will return to the Land of Israel, and then we shall return. For many things must take place in order for the ingathering of the exiles to take place, and this is impossible without the Shechina in its proper place. Therefore, when we remain in exile and God is not in our midst, we will have the most severe horrors, for we will be without a protector. Therefore the verse teaches that first God will return, and only then will He have compassion and gather you from all the nations, where the Lord your God has scattered you. (Tiferet Yehonatan 30:3)
This is reminiscent of the idea of the "hiding of God's face" which is also described in this week's Torah portion:
P>Then my anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them; so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us? And I will surely hide my face in that day... (Deut. 31:17-18)
According to Rav Yehonatan this is part of the process of redemption.
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RETURN TO ISRAEL
Rav Yehonatan then goes on to explain the purpose of the return to Israel. The verse states:
And the Lord your God will bring you into the land your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and he will do you good, and multiply you above your fathers. (Deut. 30:5)
Rav Yehonatan explains that the return to Israel is an opportunity for rectification. The failure of the people took place in the Land of Israel while theShechina was in their midst. One of the principles of teshuva is not repeating the same transgression in the same situation as before:
How is one proved a repentant sinner? Rav Yehuda said: "If the object which caused his original transgression comes before him on two occasions, and he keeps away from it." Rav Yehuda indicated: "With the same woman, at the same time, in the same place." (Yoma 86b)
According to this approach, the ingathering of the exiles is the re-creation of a situation where the Jews may heal the spiritual damage caused by their ancestors years ago.
Significantly, this was the context where Nachmanides mentioned the mystical idea of souls reaching completion. Future generations are bidden to follow the covenant forged with a previous generation and to complete the mission of the previous generation as they heal the damage which was unleashed by virtue of sins committed in antiquity. If the Temple was destroyed due to hatred, the generation brought back to the Land of Israel must rise above the petty jealousy and hatred, and repair the souls tainted in previous generations.
Maimonides writes (Laws of Teshuva 7:5) that at the end of days the Jews will do teshuva and return to God. He adds that all the prophets commanded Israel regarding teshuva, and the Torah has already guaranteed that the people will come back to God. His proof is drawn from the verses we have already examined from this week's Torah portion. Maimonides also cites these verses when describing the task of the Messiah (see Laws of Kings 11:1).
According to Maimonides, for a Jew not to believe in the collective teshuva of the Jewish people he must reject the promise of the Torah, and the belief in the Messiah. Rabbi Soloveitchik added that the naysayer also rejects the Jewish People, and has lost belief in them as well.4
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IN OUR DAYS
In our days, these teachings are all the more poignant and powerful. This century has seen horrific events, and we pray that those were the worst of the birth-pangs which the sages foresaw and prayed to be spared. We have lived to see an ingathering of the exiles, and we are aware that our communal and personal life in Israel is an incredible opportunity to mend the damage of previous generations. We must never lose faith in the Torah which promised the return, nor faith in the people of Israel who will perform the complete return to God.
For just as we are imbued with a metaphysical soul which allows us to relate to God as individuals, the collective community, too, has an incredible spiritual capacity which is far more powerful than the sum of all its individual parts. Likewise, just as the individual can perform an act of transcendence by doingteshuva, so can the entire community. The Torah has already promised that this will happen ? it is just a question of time.
And you shall return and obey the voice of the Lord, and do all his commandments which I command you this day. And the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in every work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your land, for good; for the Lord will again rejoice over you for good, as he rejoiced over your fathers. (Deut. 30:8-9)
- A similar teaching is found in the Zohar Leviticus 34b. (return to text)
- The same idea is taught in Zohar, Leviticus, Page 70a. (return to text)
- This idea is explored in the Zohar Genesis, Page 28b. (return to text)
- See "On Repentance" page 132ff. (return to text)