D’var Torah: Nitzavim (Susan Holbert)

Today’s parshah or Torah portion contains a prophecy of captivity & return:

You shall bethink yourself among all the nations where Adonai has driven you, and shalt return unto Ado, and hearken to the voice of Adonai and adonai will turn your captivity and will return and gather you from all the peoples, where Adonai has scattered you.

Rambam tells us that this tale of captivity is not a simple narration of future exile, but that Moses is instructing us in how to return from that exile, how to return to God, how to return home. And that journey is called teshuvah, return, a central element of our Rosh Hashanah practice. Last week’s parshah contained a choice of blessing or curse. Teshuva is our blessing to choose.

After a long night of wrestling with a dark angel, Jacob was also given a blessing. His name became – yisrael, struggle with God, because he had struggled with gods and men and he had endured: he had found himself up to the task. Our choice in this parshah is also the choice to choose struggle – with our own dark side, our own mistakes and missteps, our own misdirection. We have strayed from the path and we must find a way to return.

For that is what teshuvah means: return. It is often translated as repentance and reconciliation. As part of the Rosh Hashanah ritual, some of us ask friends and family for forgiveness for anything we have done to hurt them during the year. We try to resolve unfinished emotional business. And during the liturgy, in prayer and reflection, we try to move God from the Seat of Judgment, where we are condemned for our sins, to the Seat of Mercy, from whence we are viewed with compassion and forgiveness. That is the hoped-for result of teshuvah. The process is the struggle to choose the blessing – which brings vitality, community, and abundance rather than the curse of alienation, which brings deprivation and ultimately death.

And we are told how to do that in this parshah in Deut 30: T’shavta, You shall return, the prophecy says. T’shuv Return, the mitzvah or commandment, says.

Return to what? In reference to exile, the return to homeland is the ultimate goal. But the immediate necessity is to return to God. shamata b’kol adonai. Sh’ma – hear, hearken, allow ourselves to truly take in what we come to recognize as we walk this path, as kol adonai, the voice of God.

First, how do we make this happen? We are encouraged to spend Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, reviewing what we have done in the past year: our inner thoughts and feelings and our outer words and actions. We hope to renew our commitment to living an ethical life, to recognize in what ways we have failed to achieve or even strive toward this goal, and to find a way back to being in right relationship with ourselves, our community, and our God. To use the archery metaphor from the High Holidays liturgy, to recalibrate our aim and hone our skills, so that we are back on target and no longer miss the mark.

How do we do this? What are not told what particular methods to use, but what with what attitude to have as we undertake this task, namely b’col l’vav-cha – With all your heart, commit fully from the place of love. uv’col naf’shcha – and with all your soul, your very being.

Those of you familiar with the v’ahavtah prayer will know this is usually followed by uv’col m’odecha. The word m’od, “very”, is emphasized later in this portion. We are enjoined to hear God with all our very-ness, all the intensity of being that we are able to muster.

Then Adonai will (shav) turn you from your captivity. This captivity means more than national exile. It also means exile from our better selves, enslavement to what we might call our inner Pharaoh, of being controlled and driven by our fears and suspicions, our weaknesses and resentments, our instinctual desires for instant gratification or angry revenge.

And Adonai will have compassion upon you, and will (shav) turn you from … where Adonai has scattered you. This is what we must turn from and return from: the fractured scattering of our time, our thoughts and emotions, and our energy – to a refocus on what is important in our lives. Because this scattering happens not only to nations, it happens to all of us, especially those who have faced suffering and setbacks. We are blessed to have this task of pulling ourselves together as a sacred duty.

And what will the reward be? Not a free gift given by God, but  Adonai will make super-abundant all the work of your hand. By finding the way back to our true path, we strengthen the good that we can bring into the world.

But overcoming obstacles, especially our own weaknesses, is a hard task. How can we possibly expect to achieve that? The parshah offers us a source of hope for and faith in our future success.

Adonai will go over before you; and deliver up and dispossess these nations (or these things that you struggling against) Be strong and of good courage, Fear not, neither be dismayed. For Adonai will not fail you, nor forsake you;

Again, we are guided to a better way of viewing the future, an attitude of faith and hopefulness, and a belief that we are never truly alone or utterly lost and abandoned. And this attitude strengthens our ability us to overcome obstacles.

But do we in modern times really believe that a God in heaven, not matter how hard we try to hear kol adnonai, the voice, will hearken and speak to us?

This parshah written thousands of years ago addresses that question by saying, This mitzvah is not in heaven that you should say: ‘Who will go up to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us hear it, that we will be able do it? No, the word is very near you, in your mouth, and in your heart, so you may do it.

It is that small, still voice within that Elijah heard. It is the spark or divine image that is the gift of creation, the indwelling awareness of sacred presence. It is we who must have compassion, we who must grow our capacity for mercy and forgiveness, we who must give ourselves heart to go on after failure and disappointment, and hearken to the God within, that small, still voice.

But the word mitzvah bothers me. If this is a commandment, something we are ordered to do, then why do we deserve a reward for it? Again, the parshah is clear. Doing teshuvah is not mandatory. It is something we must choose. So the word commandment seems to slight the element of choice that this parshah highlights. For myself, I prefer to think of it as a call, a commitment, a voluntary duty. There is a related word in Aramaic, tsavta , which means connection. For the great blessing of performing this mitzvah is that, as with all sacred service, it strengthens and renews our sense of connection, to ourselves, to our community, and to our God.

But what does delivering up and dispossessing the nations mean? Are we to go out with sword in hand and kill our enemies? This blessing, like Jacob’s, is not a question of annihilation. Experience teaches us that that is not possible, especially when the enemy lies within. For that reason, we begin the kol nidre service by saying Let all vows be nullified. We know beforehand that our highest hopes and best intentions will not suffice to make us perfect. We will never totally eradicate errors and missteps. Our success, like Jacob’s, is measured by how hard and how long we struggle, and the prize we limp away with is a renewed commitment to not letting our weaknesses rule us, but to keep on struggling with our faults and failures for one more year.

So where does teshuvah lead us? As always, it takes us home: to the goal each of us has dreamed of achieving and to the person that each of us has dreamed of becoming. Every spiritual journey leads back to the place we started from, but as a better person, more willing and able to make our work and our life more fruitful.

As the High Holiday song says, teshuvah allows you to ♪Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are, born and renewed again.

Shabbat shalom and may your new year be full of sweet journeys and happy returns.