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Devarim - Nitzavim

We are at an awesome time of year, the shabbat before Rosh Hashana, where all of a sudden, Ellul - our month of preparation - has slipped away, and we have a few short days to prepare spiritually for what is to come.

Thankfully, Nitzavim is the perfect Torah portion to get us in the frame of mind for the high holiday rollercoaster ahead. With the tochecha (terrifying threats) from last week’s parasha still ringing in our ears, this week, we read the following:

When all these things befall you the blessing and the curse that I have set before you and you take them (ha-shev-ota) to heart amidst the various nations to which the LORD your God has banished you and you return (ve-shav-ta) to the LORD your God, and you and your children heed His command...

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

Then the LORD your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your children to love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live…

You, however, will again (ta-shuv) listen to the LORD and obey all His commandments that I enjoin upon you this day…

For the LORD will again (ya-shuv) delight in your well-being, as He did in that of your fathers,

If you return (ta-shuv) to the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.

During 10 verses, the verb root shuv, meaning to turn, to return, to repent - the root of the work teshuvah - repeats seven times in various forms.

Some kind of epic return is happening, in which - at the same time - the people repent of their ways and return to the true path that God wants from them, and God Godself does some of the returning, and the result is that the fortunes of our people is turned for the good. Grammatically, the subject of the verb shuv switches - we return, we are returned, God returns us, and God is in some sense returned in revisiting the close relationship God had with our ancestors.

This change in subject and object of the return reflects, I believe, the two-faceted nature of the yamim norayim. Is teshuva something that we initiate and are responsible for seeing through to the end? Or is it something that we look to God to effect? In the Mishna, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer debate just this. They ask what would happen if Israel was to refuse to repent. Would that be it - bam - the end of the history of the Jewish people? Or would God step in and employ a kind of divine driving instructor’s dual control of the pedals to keep our car driving in the right direction?

I think the answer that our parasha is giving us is that it can’t be one or another. Teshuva in our sedra is enacted by God and by us. It is a complex two-way process. In the passage, the first move is made by us - we have to make the first gesture of return, but we don’t do it alone. God responds - it is a reciprocal process. Our own initiative can only take us so far and then, as Rabbi Alan Lew so beautifully says in his book about this period of chagim “We have to depend on the universe to support the flowering of our intention”.

And isn’t this so true of our experience? We plan our lives and futures so fastidiously. We have hopes, dreams and ambitions to get to a certain place. We repent and try to be better. And to a certain extent our efforts will bear fruits. But a certain dose of whether we will ever get to where we want to be, is down to the lot we are dealt. Will the universe support the flowering of our intention? May we take our teshuva as far as we can this year, and may God pick up where we leave off.



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