Parashah Ponderings

Turn Toward Life

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech / פרשת נצבים־וילך
Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

This Saturday night, in synagogues throughout the world, Jews will gather to recite penitential hymns in preparation for the Ten Days of Repentance, which come upon us next week. The S’lichot (literally “forgiveness”) service alerts us to the work of teshuva, or repentance, that awaits us from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. Like the shofar blast heard each weekday during the month of Elul before Rosh Hashana, the S’lichot service stirs within us an awareness of our mistakes and motivates us to seek forgiveness and, ultimately, to change for the better.

The Torah reading this week, then, is nothing if not timely. In his final discourse to the Children of Israel, Moses prophesies that Israel will thrive in the Land they are about to enter but will then stray from God and God’s commandments. Israel’s sins will be grave and God’s punishment will be harsh, but God will be ready to receive Israel back into God’s goods graces once Israel turns again to heed God’s word. This process of turning back to God — this teshuva (literally “turning” or repentance) — is the very process that you and I are to undertake in coming days.

Moses assures his followers that the “Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach” (Deut. 30:11). There is no secret to teshuva, Moses insinuates. God gave the Torah to Israel as a road map to connect with God. All Israel need do is follow that map.

So, too, with us. Though personal transformation does not happen quickly and without great effort, the truth is that God has endowed us with the capability to exam our souls, determine the ways we want to change, and effect the change we desire. With our own inner resources and with the guidance of Torah, we can, in fact, turn our lives around. We imagine even that during the Days of Awe God is poised to inscribe us in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. The extent to which we perform teshuva with full sincerity tips God’s pen in our favor.

How beautifully our experience of turning back to God parallels that of our biblical forbears, who also had Life and Death set before then. “I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity,” Moses tells them. “For I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, to walk in God’s ways, and to keep God’s commandments, God’s laws, and God’s rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess…. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live” (Deut. 30:15-19).

If Moses’ words sound like they were meant for our ears today, they were. Indeed, his message of hope and faith was intended not only for his generation but for all future generations of the Jewish People as well. Our tradition teaches us that God lovingly longs as much for our return as God longed for the return of Israel millennia ago. God truly yearns to reconnect with us, to fill our lives and our world with the goodness of the Divine Presence. Know this day, therefore, that we do have a choice. Through teshuva, let us turn toward Life.

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