Dvar Torah on Rosh ha-Shanah

Rosh ha-Shanah 2017 / 5777 - All Together Now: Repent!

14.09.2017 by

Parshat Nitzavim, which is traditionally read just before Rosh Hashanah, contains what is known as the chapter of teshuvah – repentance. There is a famous disagreement between two of the giants of Medieval Judaism, the Rambam and the Ramban, about this section.

The Rambam (Maimonides; Spain and North Africa, 1135-1204), reads it as a prophetic narrative, which is both a warning and a promise: the people of Israel will sin, will fail to live up to their values and ideals, will fall apart as a nation, and will be exiled. Eventually, in their places of exile, they will come to their senses, return to their traditions, values, and beliefs, and God will help them return to their homeland, where they will once again live within the moral-ethical framework of their covenant with God. The Rambam does not read this as a mitzvah – a commandment - but, rather, as a prophetic look ahead at the core dynamic of Jewish history: sin, corruption, failure as a nation, exile, a return to the national project and its values, which involves a return to our homeland, Israel. For him, the commandment to repent is found in Leviticus, and is bound up in an individual’s need to examine his or her actions, and repent for any sins, crimes, or misdemeanors which he or she may have committed. This process of repentance was classically connected to a sin-offering in the Temple, and/or making restitution to any wronged parties, along with a dynamic of introspection and work on one’s future behavior. Today, sans the Temple, we are left with the personal, inner, work, along with restitution to wronged parties when necessary.

The Ramban, known as Nachmanides (Spain and Israel, 1194-1270), on the other hand, sees the parsha of teshuva, the narrative of national repentance and return, as the source of the mitzvah of teshuvah. He sees our personal attempts to better ourselves, to right the wrongs we have done, as only part of a national effort, a societal effort. For him, the real action is on a national level: we will all do wrong, and be punished on a national scale with exile. At that point, we are all commanded to return to our value system, and be brought back to Israel to live, once again, in a society run by, and faithful to, Jewish values. Teshuva is a mitzvah which is properly done on a national scale, and properly understood as a historical, national project.

I find the Ramban’s position especially compelling, more so now, in our globalized, interconnected world, than ever. More than in our past, we are, today, on our own, literally unable to repair much of the damage we do. The people whom we cause to suffer are often suffering not because we punched them in the nose, stole their money, or insulted them. They are suffering because we support, maintain, and benefit from a society and an economic system which, systematically, makes them suffer. Whether it is Americans or Israelis who work hard and yet cannot earn a living wage, or all of us buying clothing and other goods made by people – often children - in the third world who work in modern sweatshops at slave wages, or us allowing Jews who made aliyah to Israel from the former Soviet Union to not be accepted as the Jews they are, or readily assisted in becoming the Jews they want to be, or the slaughter, on our watch, of over 600,000 Syrians by a butcher who I am quite sure will regain his place as a recognized leader among the nations of the world, or the way people of color are treated by the cops in America and Israel (much worse in America, but still), it is our complicity, our silence, our paying of taxes, our apathy, which make all of these injustices possible. 

Which is why Nachmanides is so right. Only as a nation, looking at our collective activities, our collective guilt, our collective mistakes, can we ever hope to fix what we’ve done wrong, and attempt to not do it anymore, because it is as a collective that we do the most damage. And now, for the first time in human history (well, since the flood, anyway) our ability to do the wrong thing, and our responsibility to fix it, has become global. The global warming and climate change which, on a daily basis, is so clearly becoming more and more damaging and dangerous, is something we all do together, we all create and cause together, and which only we together we can hope to fix.

I do, however, want to “salvage” the Rambam. His focus on Teshuva as the personal attempt by each one of us, individually, to assess our actions and improve them, as well as, when relevant and possible, undo the damage we have done, is crucial if we, as a collective, are ever going to get anywhere in the repentance project. We must begin with, and always maintain a focus on, our personal responsibility for the things which are going wrong – big and small, macro and micro – as we, at the same time, also act as a community, nation, and, indeed, a planet, to do teshuva.

Shana Tova U’metuka,


Rosh ha-Shanah Summary

ראש השנה

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, has contradictory characteristics and elements. We have the custom, at the holiday meal, of eating apples and honey, along with other special, symbolic foods, as we wish one another a sweet new year. On the other hand, it is a day of judgement, when, on the day the world was created, the creator judges all of his creation. The liturgy for the day contains many beautiful prayers, along with the blowing of the shofar, a ram's horn, all meant to arouse us to examine and improve ourselves and the way we live, as we begin a ten-day process of repentance, leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when, hopefully, our sins and shortcomings will be forgiven.

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