Teshuva as a Love Story: the Torah portion of Nitzavim & Rosh Hashana

Walking in Haifa of my childhood, less than a mile from where I grew up, sometimes I meet myself coming and going. Yesterday she was sitting at a bus stop, chatting with friends in her school’s uniform, ponytail bouncing as she laughs with them… On the eve of Rosh Hashana 5780 – 2019, Israel’s population nearly tripled from those days when I actually walked the streets and sat on the benches here – or more likely, a low stonewall near my house. I am so glad to finally, be one of these 9 million living here, whoever and however they are counted, and perhaps at no other season is this so poignant than the season of teshuva.

Teshuva has many translations. Simply, it means “answer”, but during these days, it also means “repentance” or “return”. Some say, it comes from “lashevet”, to sit, to feel settled. Do I? What is the meaning of any of this?

In the Torah portion we most often read before Rosh Hashana, that of Nitzavim, we find the instructions for teshuva (Deuteronomy 20:2-10):

וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד־יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם אַתָּ֣ה וּבָנֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃

and you return to the LORD your God, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day,

וְשָׁ֨ב יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־שְׁבוּתְךָ֖ וְרִחֲמֶ֑ךָ וְשָׁ֗ב וְקִבֶּצְךָ֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר הֱפִֽיצְךָ֛ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה׃

then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.

אִם־יִהְיֶ֥ה נִֽדַּחֲךָ֖ בִּקְצֵ֣ה הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם מִשָּׁ֗ם יְקַבֶּצְךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ וּמִשָּׁ֖ם יִקָּחֶֽךָ׃

Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the LORD your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you…..

וְאַתָּ֣ה תָשׁ֔וּב וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֖ בְּק֣וֹל יְהוָ֑ה וְעָשִׂ֙יתָ֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֺתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם׃

You, however, will again heed the LORD and obey all His commandments that I enjoin upon you this day.

וְהוֹתִֽירְךָ֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ בְּכֹ֣ל ׀ מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָדֶ֗ךָ בִּפְרִ֨י בִטְנְךָ֜ וּבִפְרִ֧י בְהֶמְתְּךָ֛ וּבִפְרִ֥י אַדְמָתְךָ֖ לְטוֹבָ֑ה כִּ֣י ׀ יָשׁ֣וּב יְהוָ֗ה לָשׂ֤וּשׂ עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ לְט֔וֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֖שׂ עַל־אֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃

And the LORD your God will grant you abounding prosperity in all your undertakings, in the issue of your womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil. For the LORD will again delight in your well-being, as He did in that of your fathers,

כִּ֣י תִשְׁמַ֗ע בְּקוֹל֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֤ר מִצְוֺתָיו֙ וְחֻקֹּתָ֔יו הַכְּתוּבָ֕ה בְּסֵ֥פֶר הַתּוֹרָ֖ה הַזֶּ֑ה כִּ֤י תָשׁוּב֙ אֶל־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃

since you will be heeding the LORD your God and keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Teaching—once you return to the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.

The process here is described to have three stages: that of returning to the Land of Israel, because it’s connected to the the in-gathering of the People; the second is returning to the actions that connect and bind us to G-d (those we call “commandments”); and then, that of just “simply” returning to G-d.

The whole idea is bizarre: the fact that this has to do with “return” means I’ve been there once…. Have I? Alternatively, if we are made in G-d’s image, then isn’t G-d already within us? Where shall we go back to? What if we’ve never been “there”??

In Israel the term “chazara bitshuva” loosely translated as “returning on the return / finding an Answer”, has taken on a new face: that of becoming religious after growing up secular, a term which is fraught with emotions and challenges. I remember a friend who grew up with “nothing”, married a religious man and became “religious” herself. She told me how when people ask her if she’s a “chozeret bitshuva”, she says, “no, I have a love story”. This is what I think Rav Kook would say too: teshuva is not only about a place or an action; it’s not about a list of to do’s and ‘ I once didn’t light Shabbat candles and now I do’. Action is important because it conveys who we are, but it’s not everything. Therefore, teshuva rather, is about a soul reaching for and flowing towards – and with – its source; about a deep desire for Oneness and Flow; indeed, about reconnecting with the love story between us and G-d, and centering that in our life.

Shabbat Shalom & Shana Tova Umetuka.

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