Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30
Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9
The fundamental motif of the parashah of Nitzavim is perfectly appropriate for the season now approaching — the High Holy Days. The theme is that of tshuvah, repentance. The ability of a Jew to wipe the slate clean of previous wrongdoing is one of the greatest gifts that the Almighty has given us. Although a person who has sinned logically deserves punishment, our Heavenly Father encourages him only to acknowledge his error, confess it (to G-d) and sincerely resolve to improve himself to the extent that he will not repeat his offense in the future. This will lead to complete forgiveness.
Can anyone imagine such a dynamic in a civil court of law? Can we conceive of a person being exonerated and given a clean slate after he sincerely expresses remorse and promises not to do it again?
Parashat Nitzavim is replete with images of tshuvah verse after verse. The Torah goes to great lengths to reassure us that tshuvah is actually doable so that we might very well ask, "Why is it necessary for the Torah to exert so much effort to convince us of the real possibility of repenting and being forgiven?"
Maybe we find it hard to accept this concept because we have a difficult time truly forgiving those who have hurt us. Perhaps it is challenging for us to relate to this kind of total forgiveness or maybe our feelings of guilt are such that they preclude our acceptance of total forgiveness. In any event, the concept of tshuvah is such a great act of kindness on G-d's part that we seem to need to be convinced that He really means it.
In a letter to a student who was struggling unsuccessfully to do the mitzvot properly, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner of blessed memory reassures his student with words from Proverbs 24:16, "A righteous man falls down seven times and gets back up." In other words, we mustn't despair or (G-d forbid) give up because our life seems to be a constant fight with our "evil inclination." Even the very righteous face these challenges. The mark of a true tzaddik is his acceptance of the continuous nature of the battle and his readiness to pick himself up off the floor time after time to start anew after each battle. The struggle itself brings one closer to the Almighty.
Many questions have been asked throughout our history about what tshuvah actually accomplishes. Our sages went so far as to heap praise on a ba'al tshuvah (penitent), placing him above the perfectly righteous. Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim 3:36 explains that had there not been a mitzvah of tshuvah, there could not be such a thing as Jews who observe Torah and mitzvot.
"It is impossible for a person not to err or sin, either because he errs in judgment or because he develops an undesirable character trait or because he is overcome by his passions. If he believed that he could never rectify his crooked ways, he would continue repeating his error and he would have no remedy. Our faith in tshuvah, however, allows us to improve, to return to the best of ways and to become more perfect than before we sinned."
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of blessed memory explained that one context in which the word tshuvah is used is in I Samuel 7:17, which describes how the prophet Samuel would travel the Land of Israel throughout the year and would return home at the end of the year. "And he returned [u-tshuvato] to Ramah for his home was there." Soloveitchik explains that tshuvah is a cycle. Just as Samuel, when he took his first steps away from his house to begin his journey, was also beginning his return home, so too, when we do wrong, we can never really move away from G-d, since at the same time we start on the road to do tshuvah. For some, the circle is larger than others, but we each have that Divine spark that keeps us attached to our Creator. We all return home at the end of the journey.
As we begin the process of tshuvah tomorrow night with the recitation of the Selichot prayers, may our efforts be acceptable.
May the gates of tshuvah remain open for all of us who seek to enter. May we all be judged as deserving before G-d.