Every week, parshaoftheweek.com brings you a rich selection of material on parshat hashavua, the weekly portion traditionally read in synagogues all over the world. Using both classic and contemporary material, we take a look at these portions in a fresh way, relating them to both ancient Jewish concerns as well as cutting-edge modern issues and topics. We also bring you material on the Jewish holidays, as well as insights into life cycle rituals and events...
Parshat Nitzavim, which we read every year before Rosh Hashanah, contains what is known as the parsha of teshuva (תשובה - repentance): a beautiful, poetic, and moving description of the Jewish people’s return to their covenant with God and their commitment to His Torah, along with a parallel return from exile, to where they have been banished for failing to keep the mitzvot, to the land of Israel.
The Ramban, also known as Nachmanides, (Spain and Israel, 1194-1270), understands this dramatic, historical, national drama of exile and redemption, of loss and return, as the essence of the commandment to do teshuva; to repent, mend our ways, assess and improve our behavior, which, during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur period, is what we focus on. The verb “la’shuv” (לשוב) – to return – appears again and again in the section, referring both to the Jewish people returning to God and His word, as well as God approaching us and bringing us back to the land of Israel. The Ramban explains that that repentance is essentially the national act of the people returning to their roots, their values, and their land, where they can run a country according to those very values. It is a communal affair, a historical event, which plays out on a national level, and this parsha is the commandment, given to the entire nation, to make this communal effort, to change history, and repent as a people.
The Rambam (Maimonides, Spain and North Africa, 1135-1204), on the other hand, sees this parsha very differently. He understands it as a narrative, a promise from God that the Jewish people, despite all the difficulties and dangers of the Diaspora, will, eventually, find their way back to their God, their traditions, and their homeland. But this dynamic is not the commandment to do teshuva, it is simply the description of how, in the future, God will help us through our long and difficult history to redemption. This parsha, for the Rambam, is a promise, not a commandment. On the other hand, Teshuva, for him, is a personal affair, based on the individual’s ongoing attempt to understand how he or she has behaved badly, and demands that he or she make subsequent attempts to right the wrongs that may have been done. It is, in essence, about each and every one of us taking responsibility for our behavior, our sins of commission and omission, against man and God, and acting to improve ourselves. And it is not what our parsha, as beautiful and dramatic as its vision of a historic, national turning to God might be, is about.
Clearly, both of these dynamics are important. One of Judaism’s great gifts to us is the demand it makes, and the opportunity it offers, for us to do teshuva as the Rambam understands it: to contemplate our behavior, weigh it up against our value system, and try to work on ourselves to be more sensitive, honest, caring, and loyal; to our family and friends, and to our Creator. The Rambam is obviously right: any form of repentance must include a very personal assessment of who we are and how we are doing, along with a commitment to do better.
The Ramban, however, is, to me, much more interesting. Given the fact that we are all social animals, acting, thinking, and behaving within, and as agents of, a culture and society, the only real way to assess our behavior is to take a broader view, to understand that what my family, community, and nation are doing is, to varying degrees, my responsibility. The actions of my society are mine as well. They are a big part of who I am, and must be included in any assessment of what I have done. Very few individual Americans have, on their own, done as much harm as the American government and army did, in their name, in the Middle East over the last fifteen years. Very few Muslims are as evil as the people currently, in their name, murdering and raping innocents in Iraq and Syria. Figuring out what one’s personal responsibility is for acts of evil committed by my community, and taking ownership of that, is, I think, the much bigger and more important aspect of teshuva, and is often much more meaningful and important than worrying about whom I might have insulted at work, or what family member I have not been paying enough attention to, as important as those personal interactions are.
With the world going to hell in a handbasket, the Ramban’s notion that teshuva is a national experience, something we do as a people, is crucial. Those of us, like myself, who are Israeli Jews, certainly must think long and hard about how the People of Israel are doing, how our Jewish State is doing, and what we must do to first identify, and then right, those things that we are doing wrong. Although Jews living in the Diaspora have a more complicated job of relating to their responsibilities as Jews along with their American, British, French, or other identities, that does not exempt them from doing so. As citizens of their countries, they are fully responsible for the actions of their countries. As Jews, with a tradition of teshuva, they should be leading the way forward in the necessary job of examining the actions of their societies, and lobbying and working to improve them.
If we take the current refugee crisis as an example, it should be clear that Jews in the U.S. and other western countries, who have the ability, wherewithal, and responsibility to help, must lobby their governments to commit to a better response to the situation, and do the best they can for these unfortunate victims of the violent, vicious, and deadly unraveling of the Arab world.
All of us, in Israel or abroad, as citizens of our respective countries, are participants in large, impactful, national decisions and actions, actions which mean life and death to people all around the globe. This Rosh Hashanah, perhaps more than most years, in addition to examining and working on our individual faults and shortcomings, we need to do teshuva on a collective level, and figure out what our societies and countries are doing wrong, and fix it.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tova,
Rabbi Shimon Felix