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In the first of the two portions we will read this week, Nitzavim, we find a section which is known as the parsha of teshuva - repentance. Although not all commentators agree (Rashi and Maimonides don't), Nachmanides (also known as the Ramban; Spain, Israel, 1194-1270) sees the verses as a commandment, demanding of us that we repent. I use the word "we" purposely, as the kind of repentance discussed here is not that of the individual but, rather, that of the nation, and takes place on the national level:
"So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you shall turn to your hearts, there among all nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and you shall return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons. Then the Lord your God will return [with] you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will return and gather you from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back. The Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, to love the Lord your God...And you shall repent and obey the Lord, and observe all His commandments which I command you today..."
The process of teshuva - penitence - is presented here in the broadest possible historical terms. Rather than simply focusing on the penitence of the individual, in terms of his or her personal shortcomings (as we typically do around the time of the High Holidays), the Ramban sees this section as a commandment to the entire nation, to see itself, while in exile, as being in need of repentance, and repent. This must be a communal returning, a national teshuva, to our own hearts, to God and His commandments, to the land of Israel, and to our former status.
I'd like to focus on the Ramban's understanding of what this restored status is. Rather than simply seeing it as a return to political and cultural autonomy, along the lines of the thousand-plus years of Jewish national sovereignty in Israel (roughly between 1200 BCE and 70 CE), he takes it much further: "...And mankind will, at that time, return to what it was like before the sin of Adam, that he would naturally do that which it is right to do, and he would not desire something and its opposite..."
The Ramban goes on to explain that, in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, man naturally did that which was good, and fitting, and did not have to struggle with his base nature to do the right thing. It is to this remarkable state, in which, the Ramban tells us, man had the free will to do whatever he wanted, but was naturally inclined to do good, that we, the Jewish people, along with all of mankind, will ultimately return. This is, of course, nothing less than a radical, universal, Messianic state, and, according to the Ramban, we are commanded to achieve it!
I have always found this to be a very powerful idea. That we are meant to - according to Nachmanides, commanded to - return to Eden is, if taken seriously, a revolutionary notion, one which allows for, in fact demands, some far reaching changes in our thinking and behavior. For example: if, in the Garden, Adam and Eve were equals, and it is only after their sin that Eve is cursed and made subservient to Adam, then feminism is a messianic movement, one which attempts, according to the Ramban, to take us forward in the journey back to our original, egalitarian, Edenic state. Surely, if we pretend we are already in the garden, and suspend for a moment our evil inclinations, we must see that a world of equality, without subservience, is "that which it is right to do".
Furthermore, if this is meant to become the state of all mankind (as Adam and Eve were, in their day, all of mankind), then we are also looking at a universalistic position, one which sees the world as one, and erases distinctions between peoples. In a way that is both ironic and challenging, this universalizing process begins with a return to our national home in Israel. Ultimately, however, the goal is to transcend that value, and achieve a world order which is even closer to perfection, closer to the Garden of Eden.
One can view many modern developments - from employees' rights and a shorter work week, to automation and the internet - as bringing us back to a before-the-Fall world, a world which is one, and in which work is not onerous or exploitive (the "sweat of the brow" thing was part of the curse). It is interesting that the advantages of automation which we were promised when I was growing up have not totally panned out, and the advances made in the struggle for workers' rights have, in many areas, been rolled back: since 1973, "families now work longer hours - about two and a half or three months a year more of work on average", according to Jeff Madrick in "The Case for Big Government". This, surely, is the wrong direction, and should be seen as such from a Jewish perspective.
The Ramban's notion that the Messianic era is essentially a return to the Garden of Eden, and is at the same time a process of reassessment and repentance in which we are commanded to engage, places upon us the dual responsibility to establish, by careful examination of the Eden story, what our real, ultimate values might be, and then, as a society, act to achieve them, no matter how revolutionary and far-reaching the changes demanded of us might be, no matter how many out-of-Eden values we may have to rethink along the way back to the Garden.