This week's parsha, Nitzavim, contains a rebuking of the Jewish people as they prepare to enter the land that God has given them. Take the fact that this Torah portion is usually read on Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat of "repentance" between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) or, as is the case this year, the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, and the rebuke packs an even greater wallop.
Fortunately, I was asked to both write a d'var Torah on this portion as well as read part of Nitzavim in my synagogue this coming Shabbat. In learning my assigned part of the parsha, I noticed something: The first 10 passages of Chapter 30 contain seven words that are derived from the root shin-vav-vet, or "shuv" - Hebrew for "turn" or "return" - the same root used for the Hebrew word for repentance: teshuvah. A quick flashback to fifth grade in Jewish day school reminded me that this can't be a fluke. I then turned (pardon the pun) to my favorite commentator, Nehama Leibowitz, for her take on things.
Leibowitz points out that this 10-sentence section of the text serves as words of consolation, following words of "dire retribution" and serious curses that would befall those who do not heed the covenant with God. In these words, the Torah seeks to clarify the relationship between repentance (teshuvah) and redemption (geulah), which typically is a "progressive arrangement" of 1) commit a sin, 2) be punished, 3) repent and 4) God will bring you to the land (redemption). But by using the words "turn" or "return," this passage takes a different direction. It says that the relationship between repentance and redemption is not a one-way street - that the usage of turn or return suggests, according to Leibowitz, a series of reciprocal movements.
Reading the passage is like following a tennis match. Here's how that "match" plays out in all seven usages of the root "shuv":
30:1 "...the blessing and the curse that I have set before you, and you take them (va-ha-shevota) to heart." Score: God 1, Jews 0.
30:2 "And you return (ve-shavta) to the Lord your God, and you and your children heed His command". God 2, Jews 0.
30:3 "Then the Lord your God will restore (ve-shav) your fortunes..." God 2, Jews 1.
30:3 "...He will bring you together (ve-shav) again" God 2, Jews 2.
30:8 "You will return (ta-shuv) and obey the voice of the Lord..." God 3, Jews 2.
30:9 "...For the Lord will again (ya-shuv) delight in your well-being." God 3, Jews 3.
30:10 "...once you return (ta-shuv) to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul."
God: game, set and match.
But why should this be back and forth? Why couldn't God simply win in a rout: We serve God repentance, God returns redemption, six-love?
To answer this, Leibowitz quotes Rabbi Yitzhak Arama, a 15th-century Spanish commentator. He observed that repentance cannot be a single act, where one goes from deep in sin to the "pinnacle of purity." In his book, "Akedat Yitzhak," he quotes the prophet Isaiah, who said: "Let the wicked forsake his path and the iniquitous man his thoughts and return to the Lord." Arama asks: if this person has forsaken his path, why did Isaiah need to say "return to the Lord?" Isn't forsaking the path in and of itself repentance? His answer: there are two stages of repentance. The first is a preliminary movement back to God, which is done with great difficulty and without much progress, but is enough to "leave the evil path behind." The second stage, achieved after a greater effort, brings one closer to God using the increased momentum of being on the "right path." Arama argues that in order for us to reach the second stage, our first step has to be immediately reciprocated - that the second stage may not come if God does not provide any encouragement or redemptive sign.
And sure enough, as we struggle through reading these instructions along with the threats, curses and rebukes concentrated in the last two Torah portions, wondering how to find that path, the Torah provides us with some encouragement:
30:11-14: "Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the Heavens...neither is it beyond the sea... No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it."
That provides us with some direction, in that we might look to things we know - things we know so well, that they are in our mouths and in my hearts (memory, prayer, ideas, family) - and use them to find the way.
Tizku LeShanim Rabot, Neimot Vetovot - We should all merit many more good and pleasant years ahead.
Prepared by Simon Amiel, former director of the Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps, program professional advancement and student leadership development.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Netzavim at MyJewishLearning.com.