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Teshuva: Two Dimensions of Return

  • Rav Alex Israel




In the run-up to the Days of Awe, we frequently talk about the concept of teshuva.  Teshuva - how do you translate that word? We usually translate it simply as "repentance" and we refer to a change in personal behavior, refraining from or distancing ourselves from our negative traits and unlawful conduct.  But is that the full meaning of the term "teshuva?" Is teshuva simply changing one particular action or mode of behavior?


Our study will demonstrate that the concept is far wider than we generally think.  We shall suggest the teshuva can be understood not only in the narrower dimension of the individual but that teshuva can be perceived as a national process of renaissance, restoration and redemption.  Teshuva is not merely repentance, it is much more.  The word teshuva also translates as "return." We will examine to what exactly, or to whom, we are returning and how that "return" may be enacted.


The Parasha of Return


Parashat Ki Tavo describes the threat and prediction of national destruction as a result of not following the Torah.  In Parashat Nitzavim, we see the light at the other end of the tunnel.  We are promised an end to exile and a restoration to our land and our God.  We will take this ten-verse passage and study it together.


"(1) When all these things befall you - the blessing and the curse that I have set before you - (2) then you will take these things to heart amidst the various nations to which the Lord your God has banished you, and you and your children will return to the Lord your God with all your heart and your soul, and will listen to His voice - all the commands that I command you today.  (3) Then the Lord your God will restore your captives (JPS translation: fortunes) and have mercy upon you gathering you from the nations where the Lord your God scattered you.  (4) Even if your dispersed people are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord will gather you and from there he will fetch you.  (5) And the Lord your God will bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers.  (6) The Lord will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul that you may live.  (7) And the Lord your God will inflict all those curses upon the enemies and foes who persecuted you.  (8) You, however, will return and obey the voice of God, performing all His commands which I command you this day.  (9) And the Lord your God will grant you abounding prosperity in all your undertakings, in the fruit of the womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil.  For the Lord your God will again (lit. return to) delight in your well-being, as he did to that of your fathers.  (10) Since you will be heeding the Lord your God and keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of teaching - once you return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul" (30:1-10).


This passage describes a journey.  It is a journey of national and religious revival.  It is a movement of return, from a broken fragmented existence to national perfection, from exile to redemption. 


The process begins in the depths of exile.  It starts with an awakening of awareness.  The first stage is a "taking to heart," an understanding of the historical processes that have befallen the Jews and the resultant religious implications.  The stage which follows is a return to Torah observance.  It would seem that this is a national movement, a shift on a large scale, whereby the religious observance of the nation visibly alters.


God responds to Israel's awakening by bringing the dispersed Jews back to the land of Israel.  This is followed by the flourishing of the nation itself, both numerically and qualitatively.  But then a further stage ensues, whereby God activates a higher religious reality ("the circumcision of the heart," or "the opening" of the heart in the JPS edition).  Israel responds with greater adherence to God's word, and God reciprocates by granting a true abundance of goodness.  The process ends with a mutual joy enjoyed by both parties to the process.




When we examine this optimistic passage, we are confronted by a number of difficulties.  First, we find repeated mention of Israel's return to God.  First in verse 1 and 2 and then again in verse 8, Israel is described as "returning" to God.  How many times do the Children of Israel need to return to God?


The second problem is the style of the passage.  It shifts from Israel to God to Israel to God.  First Israel initiate their awakening, God responds, and then Israel reciprocate and then God reacts.  Why this oscillating reality? Why is the process described in so complex a way?


In search of an answer, let us suggest that this oscillation between God and nation is a deliberate emphasis of the text.  Sometimes the way a text is written is just as important as its content.  Our narrative style oscillating as it does between Am Yisrael and God raises a basic question, which is focal to the parasha: who is returning to whom?


At first it is Israel who appear to return to God, but then God Himself turns to His people and moves in their direction by bringing them back from Galut.  God appears to continue this process of reconciliation and return by "circumcising" the hearts of his people, an apparent act of refinement and catharsis.  The people then respond, following God and His Torah in a more intense manner.  God reciprocates showering us with material wealth.  And the end of the story is described with phrases of joy and delight.


How shall we understand this description? There is a certain energy created by this action and reaction.  To what may this be compared? To a human relationship where each partner enriches the other, each side responding to one another and building up a mutual energy.  [Consider the phrase "yashuv Hashem lasus alekha" (v.9).  Yishayahu uses these very words to describe the love of bride and groom - the words "yasis alayikh elokayich" that we sing at a wedding.]  In this parasha too, Israel's actions create a response or maybe a certain mood in God that in turn affects Israel in a positive way.  There is this feedback effect, back and forth, between Israel and God.


Repentance and Return


So the parasha describes a process of national return to the land of Israel, of the rebuilding of the national homeland, and the repair of tensions between Israel and God.  What is rather interesting, however, when we look at the text in depth, is that we realize that this process is described by the repeated mention of the word "shuv" - return or repent.  This verb is used in one context or another seven times in this short passage.  The word, "shuv" is the Leitwort of the parasha and its primary theme.  The process it traces is "teshuva."


Usually the word "shuv" will have a connotation of turning or returning.  In our context it seems to have an increased range of meanings.  We begin with an understanding of the meaning of our historical situation, "taking it to heart" (v.1).  That self-realization leads to a "return" to God (v.2).  God in turn "re-gathers" his lost children, bringing back the exiles (v.3-4).  We "respond" (v.8) to God by listening to Him.  The word "shuv," "teshuva," describes each stage, and therefore, the totality of this process.


If this parasha wants to illustrate the ultimate image of teshuva, we must rework our definition of this concept.  teshuva, it would seem, relates to the process of re-unification of God and his people.  Teshuva does not necessarily relate to a particular action, it is far wider.  It can be an act of self-realization and understanding and also an act of change.  It can be a response to God's actions or a return to Him.  But this is the very core of the issue.  Teshuva is much more than deleting a few sins from the records.  It is not just repentance.  Teshuva is a movement towards God, a turning towards Him, coming closer to Him, unifying our desires and our lifestyle with His vision.  It is the Hebrew word "shuv" that is deliberately selected to describe every stage in that process because every stage is part of the national reconciliation of Israel and God and their reunification.  This is "teshuva" - turning towards God - in the ultimate sense.  This is teshuva in its widest - national, historic - scope. 


God's "Teshuva"!


Let us return to the theme that we mentioned earlier - the oscillation in this teshuva process.  We compared this reconciliation to a human relationship where two people find meaning and ultimate fulfillment in their relationship, each partner adding to the relationship and generating a response from the other. 


We have described Israel's return to God, and also Israel's return to itself - in its renewed homeland, its national success.  But can we find a parallel process with God, the other partner to the covenant? We have also noted how God "returns" to Israel, but Rashi in a rather unusual comment takes the imagery a stage further.  Rashi, (quoting the Gemara in Megilla 29a) applies this action of teshuva - or return - to God Himself!


Rashi builds his comments upon a textual difficulty.  In verse 3, the verse reads "and the Lord your God will return the exiles." Now, if the verse wanted to be read "God...will cause the exiles to return home" the verse should read "VEHEISHIV" (He will cause to return), but it actually states VESHAV (He will return).  Rashi offers an explanation:


"Our Rabbis learnt from this that God Himself is - as it were - in pain together with the nation over their state of exile, and when they are redeemed, God himself experiences redemption and returns along with the newly freed nation."


God Himself is returning WITH the exiles.  If Israel is displaced, God too is displaced.  The Shekhina - God's presence - is in Galut together with Am Yisrael.  In a relationship, the absence of one partner does not leave the other partner unaffected.  The process of return is for God as much as for Israel.  It is as if we are BOTH returning to a state of togetherness and perfection.  Not only is Israel returning to itself, but God too - who was in some way in a state of dislocation during the exile - is coming back to His true and natural state of being.


The Circumcision of our Heart


This cryptic phrase begs definition.  What is it that God means by this phrase? The Ramban - Nachmanides - says that it indicates a real change in our human existence.  The metaphor of circumcision indicates the removal of the yetzer ha-ra - the inclination towards sin. 


Nachmanides sees this as a messianic vision - of the days of the final redemption - when, in his kabbalistic view, humans will have no drive or inclination for rebellion or vice and we will live in harmony with ourselves and with God.  No inner struggle will divert our energies from the true goal of the spiritual life.  If we read our parasha in the same way as the Ramban, we realize that the reward for our desire to return to God is the removal of the factors which might take us away from Him.


The Ramban however goes further.  He sees this change as a return to an era long gone.  He views this change as a return to the pristine world of Gan Eden.  In Gan Eden man lives in harmony with God.  Eden reflects the perfect togetherness of man and his maker.  It is a world which does not know of sin.  This is to happen, as well, at the climax of the process of teshuva.  At that point, there will be no sin.  Sin will cease to exist.  But is this not the very point? Where does teshuva take us? Teshuva takes us back to the exact point of departure, to a pre-sin world, to the Garden of Eden.  It is 'return' in the literal sense of the word, a return to perfect origins. 


It is interesting that this verse from Nitzavim ("u-mal Hashem Elokekha et levavkha ve-et levav zarekha") is seen by traditional sources as the acronym of the word ELUL (see Mishna Berura, O.C. 581).  Elul is seen as the time of removal of the yetzer hara.  We simply have to make the change in ourselves.  God cannot do it for us.  Elul offers us a ticket back to the Garden of Eden.  It is a time of return.  Return to God, but also a return to ourselves, to the purity of soul represented by man on his first day of creation when his soul was in its original purity.  In Elul we aim to take ourselves back to a pre-sin world.


Is Redemption Dependent on Teshuva?


We have spoken of the interactive nature of teshuva.  God and man together.  But does man always have to make the first move? Can God not draw us towards Him, helping us to realize His will without inner struggle? It would certainly make our teshuva less painful.  Why can't God do 'teshuva?' Why can't God come to us?


This is the topic of a famous discussion between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua in the Talmud [Gemara Sanhedrin (97b)].  Rabbi Eliezer brings verse after verse to prove that "there is no redemption without teshuva" whereas Rabbi Yehoshua insists that "even if Am Yisrael does not do teshuva they will be redeemed."  For Rabbi Eliezer, there cannot be redemption without Am Yisrael making some change for the better.  What is redemption if not the result of a cathartic process of betterment? Rabbi Yehoshua strongly disagrees.  The king can decide to invite us back to Him at any time He so pleases.  After all, if redemption depends on us, then who is to say that it will ever happen?


In truth, this discussion between the scholars of the mishna is an argument between the books of Vayikra and Devarim.  As we have seen, here in Devarim, teshuva is the key to redemption.  It depends on us making the first move.  But in Vayikra, there is a different mechanism to the national return.

"And I will remember my covenant with Jacob, Isaac...and Abraham and I will remember the land...  and even in the lands of their enemies, I have not despised them nor have I found them repulsive intending to destroy them, to break my covenant with them...for I will remember the covenant."  (Vayikra 26:42-45)

Here, the central criterion is the "berit," the covenant made with the forefathers of the nation.  The redemption is not dependant on our behavior, on our teshuva.  Rather, God is committed despite our conduct.  God is 'forced' to redeem us, to return us to Him.  Indeed in our Selichot we 'remind' God of this, as if to say "You owe it to us however bad we are."


A Higher Level of Redemption


So maybe God makes the first move.  He is committed to a covenant, a deal.  And maybe we will make the first move and we will return to God in teshuva. 


But on closer examination, the two models are incomparable.  This can be clearly demonstrated when we examine the nature and quality of the subsequent redemption. 


Redemption through 'contract' does not lead to a relationship of closeness and togetherness that we have described above.  It is redemption but it is not full return.  That was the redemption of the Second Commonwealth.  Israel returned to Jerusalem, not because they were better but rather because the 70 years of exile were over.  Technically Israel had a Temple but in reality, the closeness, the love, between God and His people was lacking (see the book of Ezra, Chagai).  There was no process of return and thus the second Temple never reached the heights of the first.  A redemption because of a covenant means that God is bringing us back.  But if we have not changed, has the relationship been truly repaired?


Redemption through teshuva is complete return - a return of restoration and repair.  Where we walk a path which takes effort, the result of the journey is that we reach our destination different from the way we began.  We have undergone a metamorphosis and the result is that the redemption creates a more perfected reality.  The redemption of teshuva means a redemption of healing, a redemption where we can return back to the relationship of the past and face it openly.  We can say that we have reformed and renewed our relationship with God.  The relationship is cleansed of its scars and it now bears signs of potential growth.  If the nation repairs the damage that existed between God and themselves, then the relationship with God has the ability to flourish and grow.


Our hope and prayer, as individuals and as a nation is "Avinu malkeinu, Hachazireinu bi-TESHUVA SHELEMA lefanekha" - "Our father and King!  Bring us back to you in a complete return."  We pray that we use this Elul to return.  To return to God, to the path that we truly desire for ourselves as individuals, to the path of our national destiny and to a relationship of love and togetherness with God.  And then we will experience a return to a world of restored values, a world of life and peace.