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Parshat Nitzavim

Mikvah Yisrael Hashem

According to Rambam the mitzvah of teshuva (repentance, lit. return) is a process multi-step process. It has a beginning and an end. A person removes themselves from the sin, they stop sinning, make a decision that they will not sin again, and regret the sins they have performed in the past. At the end of the process they confess their sins. (Rambam Hilchot Teshuva 2, 2)

Yet if you expect to find an orderly process of teshuva in this parsha, one like that described by Rambam, you will be disappointed. Our parsha presents a different model. The act of teshuva, return, according to this parsha, consists of two sides, God and Israel (or God and the individual). Similarly teshuva is a process that repeats itself without any clear conclusion. The beginning of Chapter 30 describes the return of the nation from their errant ways (30, 1 "And it will be when all these things will come upon you... and you will return to your heart, and you will return to the Lord, your God...) The continuation describes a reciprocal action on God's side (30, 3 "And God will return your captives... and return and gather you from all the nations.") After the process of gathering the exiled God will cleanse and purify the hearts of the people. (30, 6 "The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts...") Following that the nation once again returns ("And you will return and you will listen to the voice of the Lord...") The process repeats itself: God does good for His people (30, 9) and the people return to God (30, 10). 


At first glance it seems that the People of Israel must take the first step and then God reciprocates and, with Divine mercy, returns us to Him. Yet instead of the chapter concluding with some form of “and they lived happily ever after,” the continuation makes it seem as though it is specifically God’s action, bringing us to a new place, that inspires us to return to Him. The entire description of the process seems like a couple reuniting, slowly coming closer to each other, and it is unclear who made the first move, who is reciprocating, and when, or if, the process ever ends.


We will skip over more traditional explanations and go straight to our own explanation for the process described here. This chapter makes it seem like there are parts of teshuva that cannot be accomplished without a change in position and perspective. Even after the People of Israel initially return to God they still have a long way to left to return and this can only be done once they are taken out of exile and firmly settled in their land.


This idea can be better understood if we use the development of a small child as an example. According to Chazal young children do not have intelligence (da’at). Yet this goes against what we ourselves observe- children can extrapolate information, they can understand things quickly and effectively communicate with those around them. So it does not seem that this is what Chazal meant when they told us that children at this age do not have da'at; this is not an issue of absorbing information and communicating, but rather one of perspective. A child can’t understand the depth of the mitzvah of Shabbat and so they are exempt if they don’t observe it properly. When they get older and gain perspective they also start to understand the importance of different values. Yet this understanding can only be achieved after the child has matured and developed; only then can they understand what they missed when they were younger. As we are told, “an ignoramus does not fear sin.”


Similarly, in this chapter we begin with an initial teshuva, the demonstration of our desire to return, an intuition that we need to change. But there is a later stage after we have matured, after we have renewed our roots in our land. This return is deeper; it comes from a place of political and spiritual independence.


This later stage of teshuva is not only dependent on us, but also on what we ask that God do for us. The Rebbe of Slonim, the author of the Netivot Shalom, speaks about this kind of teshuva. He bases his understanding on the blessing of “Hashiveinu,” “Return us,” in the Amida prayer: “Return us our Father to Your Torah, and bring us close our King to Your service, and return us in complete teshuva before You.”


The Netivot Shalom explains that a person who is immersed in sin is unable to do teshuva on their own:

How can a person like this achieve true teshuva? It will not last. Because he does not have the background for the teshuva, which is a deep introspective examination of the enormity of the sin, and therefore their teshuva is not complete. And this is the reason we first ask “Return us our Father to Your Torah, and bring us close our King to Your service,” and only after that, “and return us in complete teshuva before You.” Because in order to understand the depth of the sin we first have to have a background of Torah and Divine service, which purify the mind and heart of a Jew. One can only reach true introspection through this, and then they will be able to reach complete teshuva. (Netivot Shalom, Teshuva, Maamar 3)


The Rebbe of Slonim claims that the only way a person who sins is able to escape their situation is through outside help, much like a person can’t release themselves from prison. But he adds that this person must be in an environment of Torah study, they have to open themselves up to the possibility of relocation, for they will only be able to return from their sins in this new place:

As it is brought in the holy Zohar (III 23, 2) on the verse “or his sin was made known to him,” the Torah informs us that through study of the holy Torah one can realize and understand the value of the defect and return and heal. And the entire matter of the days of Elul and selichot is that they are background for Yemei Hateshuva, the Days of Repentance, to escape the desolation inside himself and examine the enormity of the defect and his entire obligation within his world. (ibid)


To understand this idea let’s look at two different methods used to teach reading. The first is the phonic method, which focuses on each letter and syllable and the sound they make. This method focuses on providing the student with the technical tools they need to read, in an orderly, methodical fashion. It’s largely based on memorization and practice. The student studies one letter at a time and slowly learns how to put it together with other letters to make syllables and words.


There is also the “whole language” method. This method is more like jumping in with both feet. It does not teach the names of letters or the sounds they make. The student learns this on their own through their experience, listening and making connections between the whole words they learn to pronounce. This is also the way the student learns the graphic form of each letter. This method allows the student to acquire an entire orientation that goes far beyond individual letters.


The benefit of the “whole language” approach is that the child is thrown into a new place which demands that they know the general rules before they learn all the details. They are immersed in a new world of ideas and language, and their entire orientation changes along with it. This is essentially a deductive approach. After being thrown into this whole new world the child learns to adopt a new perspective, that of the words and the language they’re exposed to, simply because they are put in this new position.


Returning to the topic of teshuva, it’s clear that the Netivot Shalom thinks that people should adopt a “whole teshuva” approach. If a person moves themselves to a place of Torah, takes themselves from a spiritual vacuum to a place filled with spirituality, it can allow them to acquire a new language without a long drawn out process. Such a spiritual state is difficult to achieve on one’s own even with a lot of work. Yet this person manages to put themselves in such a world. Instead of taking small steps they jump into this new world with both feet, immersing themselves in it like a convert, adopting a completely new sociological, spiritual, and mental environment. After a person exhibits an initial desire for teshuva they may not have the strength necessary to make such a big move and put themselves in this new place. This type of teshuva is hard to do on one’s own, whether one is an individual or a nation, they need God to take them and bring them to this better, more complete place.  


As Rabbi Akiva says: “How fortunate are you Israel- before whom are you purified? Who purifies you? Your Father in heaven. As it says: “I will throw pure water on you and you will be purified.” (Yechezkel 36, 25) And it says, “God is the mikvah of Israel.” (Yirmiyahu 17, 13) (Mishnah Yoma 8, 9)


Sat, June 19 2021 9 Tammuz 5781