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   by Jacob Solomon

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When (in exile) all these things come upon you – the blessings and the curses I have presented to you… and you will take it to heart among all the nations where G-d has dispersed you, and you shall return to G-d… then G-d will bring back your captivity and have mercy on you and gather you in from all the nations in which He has dispersed you… G-d will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your children, to love G-d. (Then) You will return and listen to the voice of G-d and perform all His commandments… (30:1-3, 6, 8)

A study of the content and sequence of verses towards the end of Moses’ final speech to the Israelites before his death raises the following issues on Teshuva (repentance)

  1. The Torah states that the Israelites will 'return to G-d and obey His voice' after the trials and tribulations of the Exile. If their repentance in Exile is sufficient to merit their return to the Holy Land, why must He circumcise their heart… to love G-d…(so that) they should return to, and obey G-d' (ibid. 6,8) when they return to the Holy Land?
  2. In a similar vein, why does Moses encourage repentance after they have done Teshuva in exile and returned to Israel, by stating that 'this matter (observing the Torah) is very near to you… in your mouth and in your heart to carry it out' (ibid. 14)? The right time to promote Teshuva would be before they repent.

Indeed, the Ramban describes the Teshuva in Exile as complete repentance. For Moses uses the words 'you shall return to the L-rd your G-d - with all your heart and all your soul' (ibid. 2). Thus Moses assures the Israelites that they will eventually (in our future) see the grave errors of their ways and accept the obligations of the Torah on themselves and their descendents.

This strengthens the question - if the Israelites will have completely repented in Exile, why did Moses continue to exhort them to do Teshuva after they would have already done Teshuva? - especially by emphasizing that Torah observance is 'not in heaven... or over the sea… but very near to you' (ibid. 12-14).

In dealing with these points, look briefly at an idea connected with the forthcoming Yom Kippur.

On that day - Shabbat Shabaton - the Sabbath of Sabbaths, we live on an entirely different plane to the rest of the year. We are like angels: we are entirely occupied with bringing ourselves nearer to G-d - in our case search(ing) our ways… and returning to G-d' (Lam. 3:40) - through making peace with those with whom we have offended, confessing our sins to G-d, and making sincere positive new resolutions. Our spiritual similarity to angels is reinforced by our not eating, drinking, washing, wearing leather shoes, or doing any type of 'work' (melacha) on that day.

Thus on Yom Kippur we detach ourselves from Olam Hazeh - This World. We perform our initial acts of Teshuva in a spiritual cocoon - during the vidui (confession) in the Amidah. These include sincere regret for our past sins, confession, and sincere resolve to avoid future misconduct.

However the circumstances of Yom Kippur are temporary. Like a spacecraft travelling far above the Earth's atmosphere, we are cut off from the earthly, human limitations of our existence on that day. We spiritually grow, but like the spaceship we are unfettered by friction with the atmosphere. We are out of our usual 'atmosphere' of the practical problems, worries, and often negative emotions of the struggles of daily living and responsibilities. The real challenge of Yom Kippur comes after the Shofar - when our 'spacecraft' re-enters that 'atmosphere'. Do we skillfully and thoughtfully re-enter it and actually live to the standards of our spiritual completeness achieved on Yom Kippur, or do we lunge into it so quickly and thoughtlessly that we burn up our ideals and descend to the same plane that we were on before Yom Kippur?

This concept of 're-entering the atmosphere' can explain the way Moses described the final future return of the Israelites to the Promised Land. In Exile they would repent - but Exile is not the Holy Land. It is spiritually a relatively unnatural life for the Israelites - they are cut off from their geographical and spiritual home. Like the spaceship, they are outside the atmosphere'. Like the Jew on Yom Kippur, they are cut off from their earthly roots. Like the Jew on Yom Kippur again, they are undergoing - to maximum effect - the Exile stage of Teshuva. But it is only the Exile stage - an important step towards the greater end of living in Israel according to the Torah. So the Israelites are returning to G-d in an atmosphere that is not the one G-d initially chose as ideal for His People.

When the Israelites do return to the Holy Land they are entering the atmosphere of the Holy Land. That atmosphere presents new challenges that they never had to face in the Exile. These include the many commandments that apply only in the Land (both during and after Temple times), self government, and, as a sovereign nation, being a spiritual light to other nations according to the principles of the Torah. Indeed, our historical sources appear to indicate that the Israelites and later the Jews did not succeed in the above for most of the time they enjoyed self-government. This includes both during the course of Biblical times, and later on, during the period of the Second Commonwealth - from the Maccabean Revolt to the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Therefore, Moses assures us, G-d will help us realize the ideals specific to living in Israel as a result of our good resolutions in Exile. He will ‘circumcise our hearts' to successfully 're-enter the atmosphere' that He created for the Israelites… by giving us the courage and will-power to adapt to the very different and difficult challenges posed by the global return of the Israelites to the Promised Land… And Moses' assurance that 'this matter (observing the Torah) is very near to you… in your mouth and in your heart to carry out' contains the following idea. With His help in 'circumcising your hearts' it will indeed be 'near to you' - you will have the courage and will-power to adapt to the much greater spiritual challenges of living in the Holy Land according to the Torah.

Much of the content was inspired by ideas contained in ‘For the Shabbat Table’ by Rabbi C. Wilchanski.



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