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Nitzavim Vayelech - The first stage of Teshuva

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

Following the chapters of the blessings and the curses in parshat Ki tavo, as well as the opening section of this week's parsha that relates to the rebellious individual[1], Moshe Rabeinu goes on to teach BneiYisrael about teshuva and geulah, repentance and redemption:

1. "And it will be, when all these things come upon you the blessing and the curse which I have set before you that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where the Lord your G-d has banished you,

2. and you will return to the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children,

3. then, the Lord, your G-d, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you.

4. Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, the Lord, your God, will gather you from there, and He will take you from there.

5. And the Lord, your G-d, will bring you to the land which your forefathers possessed, and you [too] will take possession of it, and He will do good to you, and He will make you more numerous than your forefathers.

6. And the Lord, your G-d, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, [so that you may] love the Lord your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life.

7. And the Lord, your G-d, will place all these curses upon your enemies and upon your adversaries, who pursued you.

8. And you will return and listen to the voice of the Lord, and fulfill all His commandments, which I command you this day.

9. And the Lord, your G-d, will make you abundant for good in all the work of your hands, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will once again rejoice over you for good, as He rejoiced over your forefathers,

10. when you obey the Lord, your G-d, to observe His commandments and His statutes written in this Torah scroll, [and] when you return to the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul."[2]

What's noticeable in these verses, as underlined above, is the apparent repetition of the action of doing teshuva. How many times will, or must, Bnei Yisrael do teshuva? The obvious explanation is that teshuva is a gradual process that starts with a certain small step and gradually develops until it reaches its peak.[3] I would like to take closer look at the first stage of this process as mentioned in the first two of the above verses.

It is difficult to understand what difference there is between the teshuva of verse 2 in comparison verses 6, 8 and 10. Indeed the the Sforno, who explains already in verse 2 that the teshuva is a sincere one, only for the sake of heaven, explains that the word "tashuv" in verse 8 does not mean repentance at all, rather it means that Bnei Yisrael will "sit" peacefully as a result of the first teshuva. Amongst the other early commentators as well, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Rashbam, Hizkuni and others it is difficult to find a definitive explanation as to the different stages of teshuva.

Some of the later commentators however, point out that what is conspicuous in its absence in verse 2 is the returning to Torah and mitzvot. The Malbim explains that since this initial stage of teshuva happens when Am Yisrael is still in galut, there cannot yet be a returning to most of the mitzvoth as they are dependent on the Eretz Yisrael, there is therefore a mere desire and yearning to return to fulfill the mitzvoth. The Netziv as well explains that since at this initial stage in the galut many of the mitzvoth cannot be kept, this verse is referring to Am Yisrael's commitment to "return" to study carefully and listen to the words of the Torah.

It seems however that Rashi had a different understanding of this verse. In his sole comment on all these ten verses, on verse 3 Rashi states:

"The Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles:Heb. , lit., The Lord, your God, will (Himself) return (with) your exiles. [That is, the verb is in the simple conjugation. Now, since we understand the verse to mean: The Lord your God will bring back your exiles,] Scripture should have written, [with the verb being in the causative conjugation, meaning to bring back]. But [although the meaning of the verse is indeed, The Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles,] our Rabbis learned from [the simple conjugation of the verb] here [which alludes to God Himself returning], that the Shechinah resides among Israel, as it were, in all the misery of their exile, and when the Jews are redeemed [from their exile], God writes [in Scripture an expression of] redemption for Himself [to allude to the fact that He has also been redeemed, as it were,] so that He Himself returns along with Israels exiles."

It seems that the first stage of teshuva performed by Am Yisrael is their returning to Eretz Yisrael. Once they start returning to the land, Hashem responds mutually, by first of all, as if, He also returns with them from the galut and further brings about the returning and gathering in of the exiles. Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai explains that on the most basic level the word teshuva means to return the place that one has left, and therefore that is precisely what the verse is referring to here at this first stage of the teshuva of the nation.

I suppose until about a century ago one could have wondered what explanation was correct. It seems however that modern history has verified this latter understanding of the process of teshuva and redemption. The Zionist movement, mostly secular, if not even anti-religious, initiated the returning of Am Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael. This has since been followed by a mass returning of the Jewish people to their land over the last hundred years just as is depicted in the first 5 verses of the chapter of Teshuva, despite the fact that it hasn't been accompanied by a movement of teshuva in the classic sense of returning to Hashem's Torah and Mitzvot.

Rav Kook in Orot Hateshuva also echoed these thoughts:

"The arousing of the will of the nation as a whole to return to its homeland, to its own essence, spirit and personality contains something of the genuine light of repentance. The situation is clearly pictured for us in the way the Torah expresses itself on the subject: "and you will return towards the Lord, your God". The teshuva referred to is, at the outset, of an inner nature, not immediately perceptible, covered by many intervening layers"[4]

Despite the fact that this order of events is not what we would expect, the Netziv in his commentary to Shmot already noted that concerning the way Hashem plans Am Yisrael's redemption we recall the verse: "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.[5]

A possible explanation for this process of teshuvah and redemption could be explained by another piece of Rav Kook where he explains why people shun away from teshuva. He says that although there are many obstacles that hinder teshuva, the main obstacle which includes all others is the erroneous connection people make between teshuva and depletion of the vitality of life, weakness, lowering of life and other similar connotations.[6]

We generally think that teshuva must be accompanied with a general depletion of many aspects in our lives, and it demands from us confining ourselves to the mere "four cubits" of spirituality and mitzvoth. The truth is though, that proper teshuva is a calling to elevate ourselves in all aspects of our existence, embracing and perfecting the whole of our reality. It is therefore necessary that the teshuva of Am Yisrael must stem from a realization and appreciation of all the elements of the existence of a flourishing nation in its own land to eventually go on and become a light unto the nations.

Shabbat Shalom

[1]See Rav Hirsch in his opening commentary to the parsha.

[2]Devarim 30; 1-10.

[3]See NehamaLeibowitz, Studies in SeferDevarimPgs. 316-320.

[4]Orot Hateshuva 17; 2. Translation of Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Devarim Pg 313.

[5]Yeshayahu 55;8.

[6]Orot Hateshuva ,Teshuva ad Shalom 7.


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