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Ki Seitzei: Radical Root of Teshuva

In November 1785, after accidentally upending a mouse’s nest with his plow, Scottish farmer and poet Robert Burns penned the heartfelt poem “To a Mouse,” in which he famously laments that “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Many may recognize this line as the inspiration for the title of John Steinbeck’s famous 1937 book.

Li’Havdil, Shlomo HaMelech teaches in Mishlei (19:21) and as we remind ourselves each morning in Shacharis in the paragraph of Yehi Chevod, “Rabos Machshavos B’Lev Ish, V’Atzas Hashem Hi Sakum,” - though there are many ideas and intentions in man’s heart, only the plan of Hashem will prevail. These timeless messages are easy enough to grasp, and most of us can agree to the truth of these sentiments. Yet the idea that even our most carefully and intricately deigned plans are subject to upheaval and failure is quite difficult for most of us to swallow.

There is almost no need to provide examples of these concepts to invoke the feelings of sadness, disappointment, anxiety, and frustration characteristic of disrupted or ruined plans. Likely, at this point in 2020, we have all felt this quite acutely. No one is alone in having had a thought starting with the words, “I never thought I would…”And yet, this is the reality in which we all find ourselves – markedly different from anything we had ever imagined.

The test of these times, and truthfully of almost every moment in life, is what DBT calls Radical Acceptance. When things just don’t turn out the way we thought they would, or when they turn out worse than we ever believed possible, we can experience all sorts of emotions. We might feel angry, scared, sad, distressed, or hopeless, we might want to wallow in the pain of the way things have turned out, or rage at the injustice and unpleasantness of our circumstances. And sometimes, that is exactly what we need to do. Sometimes, we need a moment or two or twelve to feel upset, to mourn the loss of the dreams we had, to engage with our discouragement and discontent. If this process continues indefinitely, however, we will be stuck. Radical acceptance is our ability to say, this really is how my life has turned out, this really is what has happened and what I must contend with; this really is reality right now. Only when we have acknowledged this can we pivot and begin to make effective forward movement.

In Parshas Ki Seitzei, Moshe educates the Jewish people about the process of war in preparation for their invasion of the Land of Canaan. The pasuk (21:10) says, “Ki seitzei la’milchama al oyvecha,” when you go out in war against your enemies, “u’nisano Hashem Elokecha bi’yadcha,” and Hashem your God gives them over into your hands, “v’shavisa shivyo,” and you shall take [them] captive. Rebbe Nachman of Breslav[1] explains these verses as a metaphor to our Teshuva process.

In the Likutei Moharan (I:82 and II:82), R’ Nachman teaches that the war described in this Pasuk is not only referring to physical war, but also to the internal wars we wage daily between our own expectations, hopes, and desires, and the way things actually are. This includes everything from the minutiae of our daily routine (spilling coffee, missing a bus or train, oversleeping, a child throwing a tantrum at the decidedly worst moment) to our own spiritual growth and Teshuva process (obstacles appearing unexpectedly, trying and failing to grow in particular areas, etc.). When we encounter this battle, there is the enemy – the bumps and unexpected circumstances – and there is our goal, that God “deliver[s] them into [our] hands.” We want to succeed, we want our plans to work out, and we especially want Hashem’s help in successfully overcoming negative character traits and obstacles in our way on our path toward closeness to Him. Surely, He, too, desires that our repentance be successful, that we triumph over our internal enemies and that our plans to grow and change work out for the best?

And yet, if we find that we are thwarted at every turn despite our best efforts, we must recognize that the Teshuva process is not about checking a box, or putting stickers on our chart, or even wiping our slates clean. Rather, Teshuva is about reaffirming our acceptance of God’s will, and His ultimate control over everything in this universe, including our own Teshuva process. Often, when we set out to accomplish a goal, we immediately find unusual and unexpected obstacles in our path. We commit to working on our Kibud Av V’Eim, and suddenly we find ourselves back to living with our parents and spending excessive amounts of time with them, and this new commitment is tested. We vow to work on our Shmiras HaLashon and immediately come across a decidedly juicy story that we absolutely must relate to a friend. We affirm our dedication to Minyan attendance or rededicate ourselves to the causes of Bikur Cholim or Hachnasas Orchim, and then suddenly find ourselves outlawed from doing any of these things.

It is all too easy to turn to Hashem in the midst of this battle and say, Listen, I tried – but You kept getting in the way! And yet, this is the challenge. R’ Nachman explains, if we want Hashem to “deliver our enemies into our hands,” we must “take captives” by internalizing the reality of Hashem’s omnipotence, and by reaccepting His will over ours. The wars we wage internally so often have to do with failing to accept reality as a manifestation of Hashem’s Ratzon. When we are undoubtedly, irrefutably aware of God’s will, when we open our hands not in a shrug of uncertainty and indifference but in supplication and humble acknowledgment that everything that happens is Hashem’s desire, we can attain a state of radical acceptance.

Later on in this Parsha, we repeat the Mitzvah to eradicate Amalek, as the pasuk says, “Zachor es asher asah licha Amalek,” remember what Amalek did to you, Bnei Yisrael, when they attacked the nation immediately after we left Egypt, “asher karcha ba’derech,” when they happened upon you on the way (25:17-18). Rashi explains the word “karcha” as being a “lashon mikreh,” a term connoting happenstance: the very root of Amalekite ideology is the idea that everything that happens in this world is random, coincidental, and completely devoid of Divine intervention. The Mitzvah to remember Amalek’s actions is, as we’ve discussed previously, a call to reinforce our own commitment to the notion that our reality is always Divinely ordained.

As we begin our Teshuva process this Elul, it is easy to get swept away in the abyss of hopelessness so often associated with repentance. Yet, Rebbe Nachman’s unique outlook on our Parsha creates the space to see Teshuva not as a process of regret or even atonement, but one of acceptance. When we notice the battle of wills waging inside us, we have a choice: We can dig our heels in, kick our feet, raise our fists, and tantrum about how aspects of our lives, both material and spiritual, “should” be or “ought” to have been, or we can take a step back and acknowledge our reality as it is truly is, seeing our lives and our growth and our pitfalls as facts, without judgment, and as part of Hashem’s plan for us. Only when we’ve accepted our reality can we land in a place where we can create a new one.

This week, let us consider an aspect of our lives that isn’t how we thought it would be – our “best laid plans” that went “awry” despite our efforts, whether a detail of our routine or an aspect of our spirituality that we had higher hopes for this year. Begin the process of radical acceptance, of recognizing reality as it is, and try to let go of the “should’s,” the way we had hope things would be. If we can “capture” God’s will and get to a point of true acceptance, we can also begin the steady climb to change.

[1] Katz, Yossi. Around the Rebbe’s Shabbos Table. Jerusalem, Israel: Breslov Research Institute, 2019.

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