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Parashat Hashavua Nitzavim 2003 / 5763 - Teshuva: The Personal and the Communal

19.09.2003 by

"No man is an island, entire of itself." -John Donne

"Life is with people." Harry Golden

The first of the two parshas we read this week, Nitzavim, is read every year on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah, sometimes alone and sometimes, as it is this year, together with Parshat Vayelech. The connection of Parshat Nitzavim to Rosh Hashanah is readily apparent; the theme of Teshuva - repentance - which is a major element of the High Holy Days, is also the theme of a central section in this week's portion (Deuteronomy, Chapter 30):

"And when all of these things shall befall you, the blessing and the curse which I have placed before you, and you shall take them to heart, among all the nations to which the Lord your God has thrust you away. And you return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul. The Lord your God will restore your fortunes, and have compassion on you, he will return to collect you from all the peoples among which the Lord your God has scattered you. If you be thrust away to the ends of the heavens , from there the Lord your God will collect you, from there He will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it, he will do good by you, and make you more numerous than your fathers."

This section is understood by the Ramban (Nachmanides) as the Biblical source for the commandment to do teshuva - to repent. He focuses on the phrases in the first two verses - "...and you shall take them to heart...", "And you return to the Lord your God..." - and sees them as constituting a Mitzvah - commandment - to view the vicissitudes which the Jewish people experience in exile as an impetus, a reason to return to God, repent of one's sins, and, ultimately, return home to Israel. This, for Nachmanides, is the source of the entire concept of repentance. (The Rambam, Maimonides, disagrees. He locates the mitzvah of repentance elsewhere in the Torah, in the ritual of the sacrificial sin-offering, and sees the verses above as descriptive of the beginning of the Messianic era, and not as a proscriptive call to repent.)

Focusing on the Nachmanidean understanding of these verses as being a mitzvah - the mitzvah to repent - one is struck by the collective nature of the experience of repentance, as described in this section. For the Ramban, the essential act of teshuva is not located in the private domain, but in the public one. It is the Jewish people as a nation whom God addresses in these verses and calls on to turn away from sin and back to Him. It is on the national stage that this drama is played out; "you and your children" are mentioned, and not just the individual.

God's response to this communal act of repentance is to "...collect you from all the peoples among which the Lord your God has scattered you", and to "bring you to the land that your fathers possessed." The dynamic of soul-searching ("..and you shall take them to heart..."), and self-improvement ("And you return to the Lord your God, and listen to His voice...") is rewarded on the national level - "And the Lord your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it..."

This approach stands in contradistinction to a commonly held view of teshuva, in which it is the individual, standing alone before God, who focuses on improving himself personally, on changing his own life for the better. Although this more personal act of repentance is certainly central to Jewish life and thought, and integral to the process we are meant to undergo during the High Holy Days, it is not, according to Nachmanides, the basic, primary act of teshuva. That, he says, is done in community, with others, as part of a nation which, collectively, undergoes a process of self-examination and improvement. It is as a nation that we, primarily, sinned, it is as a nation that we do teshuva, and, if successful, it is as a nation that God accepts us back, literally, to our original place and status.

I think that this approach has something very important to say to us about who we are. It is a commonplace that the process of modernization, beginning with the renaissance and moving on through the enlightenment, had the effect of turning man from a social being, from someone defined primarily, almost exclusively, by the collective to which he belonged, into more of an individual. The decline of the importance of community in modern urban life, the decline of the family, the rise of the importance of the individual and, concomitant with that, the emphasis on the rights of the individual qua individual, are all well known and have been widely commented upon. The Torah, according to Nachmanides, by placing the act of teshuva - the act of assessing our lives and acting on that assessment - in a communal context, is arguing that the central component of this seemingly private act is, in fact, communal, national, in nature. Yes, the individual is judged on Rosh Hashanah, and must examine and improve his own life accordingly, but, ultimately, it is not as individuals that we really live, nor, therefore, is it as individuals that we really must examine and change our lives. Our lives are lived in community, in the ways in which we act and interact with others, and in the ways our collective behaves. It is collectively that the really big things in life happen: war, social policy, the way we treat the earth, how we educate our children, etc. It is that central aspect of our lives which we must deal with ultimately - it is a communal act of repentance that is the real framework for our attempts to be better people.

I would add that although Maimonides does not learn the mitzvah of teshuva from these verses, he states an interesting halacha which indicates that he, too, understands the primacy of the communal. In his Laws of Teshuva, he states that although teshuva can be done individually, repentance of the community is more effective, and is accepted by God immediately and at all times. I believe that he, too, thinks that, although we do function as individuals, and, as such have our own relationship both with ourselves and with God, it is our communal persona, our identity as a social being, that is the fullest, most complete expression of who we are. A community, a nation, doing teshuva, is the strongest expression of self-examination and self-improvement possible, and is viewed by God accordingly.

This focus on the communal is supported by the Rambam's understanding of the verses in this week's parsha as referring to the Messianic era. The ultimate teshuva, the ultimate turning to the good and the just, must be done, and will be done, on the national level. A Jew can, and should, spend all the time he needs on inward-looking self-examination and improvement. However, if he or she does not, in the process of teshuva, take into account larger communal issues, such as the injustice, oppression and exploitation that is perpetrated in and/or by his community and his nation, then he or she has focused on the less important aspect of self-improvement. The communal canvas is much broader, more powerful and more important than the individual one; its impact is greater, it is where life is really lived, and it is there that our real work must be done this and every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

For the Ramban, the essential act of teshuva is not located in the private domain, but in the public one.Rabbi Shimon

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