Rosh Hashanah is but days away, and this week we read the double Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, that’s always read on the Shabbat before the New Year. Due to its timing, there’s an urgency about its message it on the one hand, and a tone of encouragement on the other:
“Surely this Instruction (i.e. mitzvah) that I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it too us, that we may observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it. No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:1)
The rabbis debated what specifically this “instruction” or “mitzvah” is.
Most commentators say that the mitzvah is t’shuvah, repentance, which explains why the Torah portion Nitzavim might come just before Rosh Hashanah.
Each of us begins this High Holiday season in a state of chet (sin), which the great Rav Kook taught is a state of alienation and separation from our true tasks and true identity. Only through t’shuvah (repentance/return) is a corrective possible, and only through t’shuvah can we come back whole-heartedly to ourselves, families, friends and colleagues, community, Torah and God.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that sin isn’t just limited to our lack of observance of some ritual and ethical law. It includes our obligation to ‘get right’ with our own souls, to focus more on the life of our higher intuitive purposes.
Soloveitchik teaches that “Returning to the heart” is the first necessary step in that spiritual process.
Most of us wait to do t’shuvah until this season, if we do it at all. Intrinsic to the process, however, isn’t just recognizing that we’ve done some specific wrong, but that chet means that we’re out of relationship with the Torah itself.
This Yemenite Midrash explains:
“They say to a person: ‘Go to a certain town and learn Torah there.’ But the person answers: ‘I’m afraid of the lions that I’ll encounter on the way.’ So they say: ‘You can go and learn in another town that’s closer.’ But the person replies: ‘I’m afraid of the thieves.’ So they suggest: ‘There’s a sage in your own city. Go and learn from him.’ But the person replies: ‘What if I find the door locked, and I have to return to where I am?’ So they say: ‘There’s a teacher sitting and teaching right here in the chair next to you.’ But the person replies: ‘You know what? What I really want to do is go back to sleep!’ This is what the Book of Proverbs (26:14, 16) refers to when it says, ‘The door is turning upon its hinges, and the sluggard (i.e. lazy one) is still upon his bed…the sluggard is wiser in his own eyes that seven that give wise counsel.’” (Yalkut Midreshei Teiman)
Do we recognize ourselves here, not just in relationship to Torah but to what is truest about ourselves? Do we see that perhaps we’ve been negligent or lacking in will in making necessary changes, that we may wish to do things differently but always find a way to rationalize why we don’t.
Change is always difficult, often threatening, sometimes destabilizing, and frequently disruptive. Changing the way we eat or neglect our health, how we control our passions and anger, refuse to leave relationships that are destructive or change from a job that’s killing us, or take charge of our addictions that enslave us, or control an expense account that’s bankrupting us – all change relative to these destructive parts of our lives require enormous acts of clear-thinking and will.
So often we just don’t want to do what we know we have to do, to acknowledge that what we’re doing is destructive both to us and to the people we love, and that it’s high time for us to get help and support from family, friends, professionals, and clergy.
It’s time, however, to make those changes. No one is stopping us except ourselves.
We know it won’t be easy, but if we can change one thing this year about ourselves, the effort will be worth it.
Chazak v’eimatz – strength and courage.
L’shanah tovah u’m’tukah.