It is far from coincidental that Parshas Nitzavim is read each year in the lead up to Rosh Hashana. Looking through the text of this Torah portion, one finds both overt and implicit references to Teshuva sprinkled throughout. In fact, nearly all the commentaries note that some of the key ingredients in the recipe to repentance are found in this Parsha.
Without delving too deeply, a cursory glance tells you that the root word for Teshuva is found in various forms at least seven times in the Parsha, referring both to our return to God as well as to God’s return to us in benevolence and love. Some of these are well-known Psukim about Teshuva, including an actual command to do Teshuva, “v’shavta ad Hashem elokecha,” – “and you will return to God” (Devarim 30:2). Similarly, we find the verse “u’mal Hashem es livavcha v’es livav zarecha,” which contains within it a hint to the month of Elul, during which God helps us to remove the blockages on our heart and decrease the influence of the evil inclination (30:6).
These verses about Teshuva instill a sense of hope when read from the right angle. God promises that in the month of Elul, He will help us to clean away the plaque on our hearts, to break down the walls that our actions and inaction have formed between our Creator and us. Moreover, the verse “V’shavta ad Hashem Elokecha” is both a command and a promise: Moshe is telling Klal Yisrael that Teshuva not only turns us around to face God, but it actually draws us closer to Him.
I once heard an incredible metaphor for the power of Teshuva hidden in these words. Imagine that you are holding one end of a string taut, and God is holding the other; the string measures the distance between you. Every time we misstep in our Avodas Hashem, when we disconnect from Him, or disregard Him, or choose our comfort or desires over His will, it is like we are taking a scissor and cutting the string between us. Every step in our Teshuva process is like tying a knot to repair the string, and as we tie more knots in the string, it causes the string to actually shrink in length, drawing us closer to God until we are physically brought “ad Hashem elokecha,” literally toe-to-toe with God.
Given the tremendous opportunity Teshuva represents, it is most reassuring that Moshe tells the Jewish people, “Ki hamitzvah hazos… lo nifleisa hi mimcha, v’lo richoka hi,” – “this commandment to do Teshuva, it is not hidden from you, nor distant from you” (30:11), rather, “ki karov eilecha hadavar meod, b’ficha u’bilvavcha la’asoso,” – “it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to perform it” (30:14). It seems that, from God’s perspective, this repentance and reconnection is meant to be fairly easy. And yet it feels extremely difficult – we spend an entire month taking time to reflect on our year, to introspect, to better ourselves – and then we spend the entire Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur trying to draw close! How can 40 days of repentance be considered easy?
To understand the accessibility of Teshuva, we must first recognize what makes it seem so daunting and so difficult. One of my Rabbeim, Rav Yossi Cohen, recently shared an idea regarding the Teshuva process that taps into a deep psychological reality. So often when we set out to do Teshuva, we are reflecting upon our “sins,” those things we did that have distanced us from God, that have severed the ties between us. Along this introspective journey, it is all too easy to fuse our self-perception with the actions we have done that created that disconnection. All too often, the Teshuva process causes us to have extremely negative thoughts about ourselves, to confuse what we did with who we are. We think, “I am a sinner, I am bad, because I did these things.” When we think, “because I did this deed or did not do this Mitzvah, I am bad,” we often then think, “I am hopeless, and I am not worthy of a relationship with God.” This is a deeply flawed and dangerous approach to repentance that can lead to depression and despair and is actually not at all what God asks of us as per the verses in this week’s Parsha.
The reality is that our thoughts about ourselves, while powerful, may not be all that accurate. While we may have done or not done those deeds, we are not our actions. This is why King David writes in Tehilim “Yitamu chataim min ha’aretz,” let SINS be eradicated from the land – sins, not sinners; we are not our sins (104:35).
Rav Cohen noted that Teshuva is “karov eilecha,” close and easily accessible, “bi’ficha,” in the way we speak about ourselves and our deeds, “u’bilvavcha,” and in the way we think and therefore feel about ourselves. When we fuse our actions with our identity, we create walls that are much harder to tear down. If we think, because I have a difficult time refraining from gossip, I am a baal lashon hara, it is actually far more difficult to decrease our slanderous speech, because it is suddenly wrapped up in who we perceive ourselves to be. When we can begin to speak about ourselves instead as servants of God who are trying our best and who sometimes mess up or struggle, we are suddenly able to retie the knots in the string linking us back to God, and we are able to tear down the walls between us, for we realize that we deserve to be in that relationship.
My dear friend Ariella Azaraf gave a class this week in which she quoted from the Sefer Ani Lidodi by Rav Haim Sabato. Rav Sabato says that when we do Teshuva, we must view our deeds as “hachutza,” outside of ourselves, separate from who we are. Similarly, Miss Chevi Garfinkel teaches that when we strike our chests during the Ashamnu and Al Chet prayers, rather than internalizing the words and the sins we are speaking about, one can envision oneself removing the layers over our hearts, the plaque and dirt that has gathered there due to our actions.
Teshuva brings us closer to God when we are able to recognize that what we did is not who we are, it is just a part of us. When we can begin to put some distance between ourselves - our lofty, elevated, pure souls - and the actions that we did or neglected to do, the thoughts we had or neglected to have, then we will be able to truly draw close “ad Hashem Elokecha.”