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Torah Attitude: Parashas Nitzavim/Vayeilech: Don't miss this unique opportunity
In Moses' final speech to the Jewish people he instructs us about the commandment of doing teshuvah. The main focus of our prayers throughout the High Holidays expresses our longing to restore G'd's glory upon earth among all the nations. The obligation of doing teshuvah is not just a simple commandment, it is a unique opportunity. Every Jewish person is connected directly to the upper spiritual worlds and every act that one performs down here has an affect in all the spiritual worlds. It is our own deeds in this world that cause the Divine blessings and punishments due to our direct connection to the upper worlds. "Today is the first day of the rest of your life" is an expression that captures the essence of teshuvah. In the month of Elul we have the opportunity to better our position and rid ourselves of past transgressions. If we did not manage to repent fully before the Day of Judgment, we still have the opportunity to do so during the Ten Days of Repentance and thereby affect our final judgment on Yom Kippur.
Moses' final speech
In this week's portion the Torah relates Moses' final speech to the Jewish people that he gave just before he passed away. In this speech he chastises the Jewish people and warns them of the dire consequences if they transgress the Torah commandments. After that Moses continues and says (Devarim 30:1-5): "And it will be when all these things come upon you … and you will take it to your heart among all the nations that HASHEM your G'd has dispersed you there. And you will return to HASHEM your G'd and you will listen to His voice … you and your children … And HASHEM your G'd will bring you back [from] your captivity and have mercy upon you and He will return and gather you from all the people that HASHEM your G'd has scattered you there … And HASHEM your G'd will bring you to the land that your forefathers inherited and you will inherit it and He will do good to you and make you more numerous than your forefathers." The Rambam (ibid 30:11) explains that Moses is not just telling the Jewish people a prophecy what will happen in the future. Moses is actually instructing us about the commandment of doing teshuvah.
Every year we read these verses shortly before Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. No doubt this was instituted to help us reflect on our personal situation and to utilize these last days of the year to do teshuvah and return to G'd. The main focus of our prayers throughout the High Holidays expresses our longing to restore G'd's glory upon earth among all the nations. This will happen at the time of the gathering of the exiles of the Jewish people and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, in these verses Moses informs us that the prerequisite for this to take place is that the Jewish people do teshuvah and return to G'd and His commandments.
This obligation of doing teshuvah is not just a simple commandment. Rather, it is a unique opportunity that G'd, in His great mercy, has given us. No human judicial establishment would nullify a violation of the laws of a country just because the violator gets up in front of the judge and says: "I'm sorry. I really regret what I did and I promise that I will not do it again." The Jerusalem Talmud (Makkos 2:6) brings this point home by posing the following question to several "instances": What should be the punishment of a transgressor? "Wisdom" is the first one to be asked. "Wisdom" answers that a transgressor deserves to be penalized with suffering. The next one questioned is "Prophecy" who answers that the transgressor should die. Finally, the question is asked to the Almighty Himself. G'd answers, "Let the transgressor repent and do teshuvah and he will be forgiven." The Talmud here teaches us that according to conventional human wisdom a person who transgresses G'd's commandments deserves to be punished. From the point of view of prophecy he must die. The prophets could see clearly the great devastation that any transgression causes both in this world and in the upper spiritual worlds. The damage is so severe that there is no justification to keep such a person alive.
Upper spiritual worlds
We can gain a better understanding of this concept with the words of Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner. He explains (Nefesh HaChaim 1:4) that every Jewish person is connected directly to the upper spiritual worlds and every act that one performs down here has an affect in all the spiritual worlds. The Kabbalists elaborate on this. They teach that, due to our direct connection to the upper world, our own deeds down in this world cause the Divine blessings and punishments to come forth.
Beyond the law
However, G'd has the power and ability to act beyond the letter of the law. In His great mercy and lovingkindness He is ready to forgive the transgressor for any evil done, and overlook all the consequences that his transgressions brought in their wake.
Someone once exclaimed "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." This line really captures the essence of teshuvah. Every Jew can get up any morning and say "My G'd, the soul that you have given me is pure", as we say in the beginning of our morning prayers. Irrelevant of our conduct in the past we all possess within us a pure soul. We may have neglected it, abused it, and soiled it; but deep inside us we still have that Divine spark that it is beyond our ability to affect. Just like a diamond that has been soiled can be cleaned and polished and brought out to its full glory, so can our soul be restored to its full glory and shine. Through the teshuvah process of regretting our past, and taking upon ourselves to change and mend our ways, G'd is ready to forgive us and nullify our wrongdoings.
The Tour, in his introduction to the laws of Rosh Hashanah (Orach Chaim 581) writes that our sages instituted to blow the shofar throughout the month of Elul to arouse the Jewish people to do Teshuvah. Similarly, the Or HaChaim in his commentary (Devarim 21:11) refers to the month of Elul as the month designated for teshuvah. This is a time when, in preparation for the Day of Judgment, we have the opportunity to better our position and rid ourselves of past transgressions. In this way, our chances to be inscribed for a year of goodness and blessings on Rosh Hashanah have been greatly improved. In the Sephardic communities, special prayers of Selichos are recited throughout the month of Elul. In the Ashkenazi communities the custom is to say these special prayers only in the last days of the month. This reflects the added emphasis we should put on utilizing these last days of the year to return and get close to G'd.
Ten Days of Repentance
The period from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur is known as the Ten Days of Repentance. In His great lovingkindness and mercy, G'd has given these additional days so that if we did not manage to repent fully before the Day of Judgment, we still have the opportunity to do so and thereby affect our final judgment on Yom Kippur. May we all be inspired to use these special days to get close to G'd and fulfill His commandments. In this merit may we, together with all of the Jewish people, be inscribed for a year of health and goodness with plenty of Divine blessings. And may the promise of the Torah be fulfilled; that in the merit of the Jewish people returning to G'd, G'd will return us to our former glory with the coming of Mashiach and the building of the Temple.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network