What Can We Learn about Teshuvah from God, Moses and Joshua?

Parashat Vayeilech 5782 / פרשת וַיֵּלֶךְ
Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30
Shabbat Shuvah

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Returning. It is so named after the reading from Prophets that exhorts us to return to God, a fitting message for the Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, a period known as Aseret Yemei Teshuva or Ten Days of Repentance. Though Shabbat Shuvah gets its name from the haftarah this week, the Torah reading itself, Vayeilech, suggests how we might approach the task of “returning.”

In Vayeilech, God summons Moses and Joshua to the Tent of Meeting for an intimate conversation about the future:

The LORD said to Moses: The time is drawing near for you to die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the Tent of Meeting, that I may instruct him. Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the Tent of Meeting. The LORD appeared in the Tent, in a pillar of cloud, the pillar of cloud having come to rest at the entrance of the tent. (Deut. 31:14-15.)

Once God is present before Moses and Joshua, God warns them that the People will stray after foreign gods upon entering the Promised Land. To teach them the errors of their ways, God will hide God’s countenance from them, causing great misfortune to befall the Chosen People. (In next week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, Moses reads a poem to the People in which God publicly reveals further details about their faithlessness and resulting demise.)

But it’s not the prophecy of Israel’s downfall that strikes me as most apropos for Shabbat Shuvah. Rather, it’s what God says speaks directly to Moses and Joshua. To Moses, God says, “You are soon to lie with your fathers.” (Deut. 31:16) Here we have God alerting Moses to the fact that his death is imminent. This was no surprise to Moses, of course, for he already knew that God would take his life before he got to enter the Land. Still, I imagine that upon hearing these words “You are soon to lie with your fathers.” Moses might have engaged in a quick review of his life and asked himself how might he make the best use of the days that remain. Though Moses would have more of God’s teaching to share with the People, how else might he make constructive use of his limited time here on earth?

Isn’t the question of how we can best use our time the central question of teshuvah? If we’re honest with ourselves, when we do heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, we’ll recognize that we don’t always use our selves to make the world a better place. We squander time with vanities and frivolities. Worse, we engage in injurious speech and hurtful behavior. What if we knew our lives were coming to a close? How might we correct course for the good and right?

Facing our mistakes, working to mend our ways, and staying true to the course we set for ourselves are all daunting tasks. This is what we must do, though. It is also what Joshua had to do when he would lead the people over the Jordan River:

And God charged Joshua son of Nun: “Be strong and resolute: for you shall bring the Israelites into the land that I promised them on oath, and I will be with you.” (Deut. 31:23)

God girds Joshua for a difficult future with the words “Hazak ve’ematz, Be strong and resolute.” I have offered these words to students, friends and loved ones when they were about to face a trial in their lives. Strength and resolve does not mean setting one’s fears aside or denying the magnitude of the challenges ahead. Rather, strength and resolve entail believing in one’s self, despite one’s fears, and committing always to move forward.

As I think about the work of teshuvah, of returning and repentance, I imagine each of us standing in place of Moses and Joshua in the Tent of Meeting. Like God reminds Moses, the days of our lives are not infinite. We shouldn’t forget that. Before our time runs out, how can we make a difference, and how can we prepare the way for those who will carry on after us? While we need to treasure each day, we also need to lean into whatever will come our way with strength and resolve. In this respect, we are not only like Moses, but we are also like his disciple Joshua, who would one day succeed him.

We cannot know what the future holds. We don’t have the benefit of God’s prophecy to prepare us for tomorrow. As we take stock of where we are today, though, we can choose to do better going forward and enter the unknown with strength and resolve.

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