Parshat Nitzavim: Just turn the steering wheel

If a person chooses the right path, as far as he is concerned he wants to do good things. Therefore, it is as though he did them.

September 10, 2015 19:56
4 minute read.
Western Wall

Pessah cleaning at Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Nitzavim, we read especially empowering and encouraging words that Moshe Rabbeinu said to Am Yisrael days before they entered the Land of Israel. This was one of the last messages conveyed by Moshe before his death.

This is what Moshe said to the nation: For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) What is “this commandment” which Moshe Rabbeinu says is not far away from us but is very close? One well-known commentator on the Torah, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, of the great Spanish sages of the 13th century) explained that these verses are the continuation of Moshe’s previous words. If we go back several verses, we find the verse “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.” So the mitzva Moshe is referring to is the commandment of tshuva, or repentance. This is the commandment that is not far from us. On the contrary, it is “very close.”

The Ramban’s peer, neighbor, and relative was Rabbi Yona the Hassid who lived in Gerona and Barcelona and was called Rabbi Yona of Gerondi. He wrote an entire book on tshuva called Shaarei Tshuva in which he describes an entire detailed and exact system of repentance: How does one do tshuva? What are the ways to awaken oneself to do tshuva? Which are the more serious or less serious sins? Rabbeinu Yona dealt with all these issues and more.

He also asked – how could it be said that doing tshuva is easy and close to man? His answer was surprisingly simple. He said that when a man decides that he wants to stop sinning and do tshuva, “This man in this moment exits darkness into a great light.” And furthermore, “If he succeeds in doing tshuva, he bought himself the merit and reward for all the mitzvot.”

Meaning, man’s will and inner intent determine his situation regarding tshuva. If a person chooses the right path, as far as he is concerned he wants to do good things. Therefore, it is as though he did them.

How can this “jump” be explained? This man is only at the start of his journey, so why does Rabbi Yona say that he already has the merit and reward for all the commandments? We can answer this by using an allegory from daily life. Think of a person who wants to travel to Jerusalem. He leaves his home and turns toward the road that leads to Jerusalem. But sometimes the person makes a mistake and instead of turning toward Jerusalem, he turns in the opposite direction, toward Tel Aviv. He keeps driving but every meter of progress is actually a retreat since he is supposed to be going in the opposite direction.

And then, while driving, he sees signs and understands his mistake. He understands that he is on the wrong road. What should he do now? At the first opportunity, he should make a U-turn and take the road back toward Jerusalem.

Man’s life can be compared to that same unlucky driver. We want to go to a certain place, but without noticing, we take the wrong road. Sometimes we wonder if we are going in the right direction, but it is hard for us to make the decision to make a U-turn and change direction. Actually, if we only take the small step and get on the right road that leads to the goals we want to reach, we will already be on the way and feel confident that ultimately, we will get to where we really want to go.

A person who examines his life and reaches the conclusion that he has to change direction does not have to already be where he cannot yet get to. All he has to do is turn the steering wheel and change direction. This change that will lead him in the right direction guarantees that he will ultimately reach his goal. He has a long road ahead of him, but he is traveling on the correct road, and that is all that counts.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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