Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech: Laws of Repentance

Nitzavim; Deuteronomy 29:13: Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath but with him that standeth here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day.’

Birds flying over gray marsh 370 (photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artfram)
Birds flying over gray marsh 370
(photo credit: Israel Weiss ([email protected]) http://artfram)
‘And it shall be when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have presented before you... that I shall cause you to return to your heart among all of the gentile nations to which the Lord your God has dispersed you.
And you shall return to the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 30:1, 2) With the tragically bitter prophetic curses of exile and persecution still ringing in our ears from last week’s portion of Ki Tavo, this week – just several days before Rosh Hashana, the first of the 10 Days of Return (teshuva), we read this magnificent promise of return.
It is a two-pronged return, both a return to our God and our Torah (“you shall hearken to His voice according to everything that I command you this day,” and it is a return to our homeland Israel (“If your dispersal will be at the ends of the heavens, from there will the Lord your God gather you and from there will He take you. And the Lord your God shall bring you to the land which your forefathers inherited, and you shall inherit it.”
I have a number of questions about this passage, which seems to be addressing our generation, the generation of return.
First of all, is God exhorting us to fulfill the commandment of teshuva, or is this a promise which God will eventually effectuate for us? Secondly, is the term “teshuva” the most apt description for our experience in these times? If an individual has been religious but left his religious commitments (a “datlash” in current Israeli jargon, one of the “formerly religious”), and then “returns” to religion, he may properly be called a ba’al teshuva, a returnee. But if an individual who has never been religious, and is now becoming religious, how we can refer to him as a returnee? He is not returning to anything, he is initiating a new experience.
And finally, the opening verses of our portion, which also serve as a segue between the Covenant with the curses and our optimistic passage of return, begins: “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God, in order to pass into the Covenant of the Lord your God and into His imprecation, which the Lord your God seals with you today.... Not with you alone do I seal this Covenant and this imprecation, but with whoever is here standing with us today before the Lord our God and with whoever is not here with us today.”
To whom is the Bible referring when it speaks of “whoever is not here with us today”? It is usually explained as the future generations as yet unborn, but how can a covenant obligate people who were not present to agree to assume the obligation? And if it refers to the gentiles, who are responsible to keep at least the universal moral laws, they too cannot be bound by a covenant for which they were not present.
To understand this passage, we must invoke the interpretation of Maimonides, who insists that our verses are promising that ultimately Israel will do teshuva at the conclusion of their exile and will then be redeemed (Laws of Repentance 7:5).
Indeed, the Prophet Ezekiel states that the later generations will never be able to completely reject God and His Covenant: “As for what enters your mind, it shall not be. That which you say, ‘We will be like the [gentile] nations, like the families of the land, to worship wood and stone.... I swear that I will rule over you... I will cause you to pass under the rod and I will bring you into the tradition of the Covenant” (Ezekiel 20:32-37).
We can understand the phrase “under the rod” to refer to the whip of the gentiles, whose persecution prevents us from assimilating (witness Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Union, and see the words of R. Yehoshua in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b).
Alternatively, “under the rod” may refer to the rod of tithes, with which the owner assigned the sheep which would be chosen for God. We, Israel, are God’s chosen people, created in His image and destined to be His light and witnesses to the nations of the world.
That “portion from God on High” will never leave us; and so of necessity we eventually “return” to our truest nature and be the holy nation and kingdom of priest-teachers we were intended to be.
Thus, the prayer we recite each morning makes the truest statement: “My Lord, the soul which You gave me is pure; You created it, You formed it, and You planted it within me.” That is our truest essence, and it is the Divine aspect of every human being, created in God’s image.
As the greatest rule of the Torah states: “You shall love your friend, because he is like you; I am the Lord” [and so you and your gentile friend are also like Me, who formed both of you from My womb, as it were] (Leviticus 19:18).
The indelible essence of every human being is the Godliness within each individual from which humankind can never escape. Hence God promises that in historic times (zichronot the descendants of the people of the Covenant – endowed with their forbears’ and with God’s “DNA” – will accomplish their vocation of bringing the world into the Covenant.
Shabbat shalom and Shana tova
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.