Parasha Nitzavim Devarim (Deut)29:9-30:20
By Rav Mikhael
I our parasha this week we have the mitzvah of ‘teshuvah’ or repentance, or more accurately, a returning, or turning back. In this season of the fall Holy Days, the theme of teshuvah is more prominent than at any other time. It is important to seek forgiveness from anyone you have wronged before Yom Kippor for if we have wronged another person, it is them and not G-d from whom we must seek forgiveness. So in this season of Teshuvah, forgiveness and atonement, let’s take a look at what true Teshuvah is.
First, as we have said, repentance is a mitzvah, it is a commandment of G-d. The message of Yahushua and Yochannan was ‘repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’. Repentance, Teshuvah, is at the core of the Nazarene message. If we are commanded to repent, to turn around, to come back, to what are we returning? We can go back to our parasha for that. Chapter 30:2 says we return to YHVH, we return to His voice, and to His commandments, His Torah. When we repent we return to righteousness as defined by the Torah. Yochannan challenged the Pharisees to demonstrate the fruits of repentance, there are concrete, real world changes that happen to someone who truly repents. It’s not some ‘pie in the sky’ mushy emotional ‘oh I’m so sorry I did something wrong’, but concrete action. Repentance is not a just a mental exercise but it is a real behavioral change, it is a return to Torah and a Torah lifestyle. It is a return to the way we were created to live, it is a return to being truly human.
How do we repent? In traditional Judaism there are four steps to repentance. The first is that we come to the realization that we have sinned. This requires a closeness to G-d and an understanding of Torah so we know what sin is, so we know when we have done something displeasing to G-d or have wronged our fellow man. The second step is confession, acknowledging that we were wrong. Nachmanides sees this principle in 30:14, ‘very close is this (teshuvah) to your mouth’ and states that we should verbally confess our sins. This brings to mind the teaching in the Ketuvim Natzrim that we need to ‘confess our sins to one another’ and ‘confession is made with the mouth’. There is something about hearing yourself say it that makes it real, and it also helps us not to repeat the sin because everyone hates to admit when their wrong!
The next step is restitution, we need to make it right if we can. This applies specifically to sins against our brothers and sisters. Yahushua stated that if we are about to offer our gift on the altar and we realize that our brother has something against us (we have wronged him), we need to go and correct that before we come to G-d. G-d wants us to be reconciled to our brothers for if we cannot show proper love to our brothers who we can see, how can we properly love G-d whom we cannot see?
Finally is the determination not to let it happen again. If we don’t reach this step, there is no real teshuvah because, as we said above, the core of teshuvah is turning back and changing behavior to that which G-d desires. This is where our will to defeat the Yetzer ha Ra comes in, this is where we change our habits and lifestyle so we can be pleasing to G-d. The fall Holy Days are days to really examine our lives and make some concrete changes so the next year will be more righteous than the past one. Take a look at yourself honestly, let G-d reveal to you, through study and prayer, what changes need to be made. Reconcile with your brothers. Bring yourself in line with the will of G-d revealed in Torah. Do real Teshuvah and become the person G-d created you to be.
This short section of Torah renews the covenant with this generation and the generations to come. It outlines some very important concepts about G-d, His people, their relationship, the covenant and it’s provisions and teshuvah-repentance and returning. As we approach the High Holy Days and turn out thoughts to judgement, atonement and redemption, this is a fitting place to review some of these lessons.
The Torah, the teaching of YHVH to His people. Many of us who grew up in churches have been taught distortions about the Torah. We were either taught replacement theology, that the Torah and the Jewish people have now been replaced by the church and the law of ‘Christ’. Or we were taught dipensationalist theology which says the the ‘Law’ was given to the Jews to show the world that it was impossible to live up to G-d’s standard and when the object lesson was over G-d sent ‘Jesus’ to free everyone from having to try. Sometimes we still have this mentality, we don’t expect perfection, we make excuses, we rely too much on ‘grace’. In His closing address, Moshe shatters this idea. Torah is not so far or so high that we cannot understand it’s requirements or attain the goal of fulfillment. The whole thing is near to us, in our mouths because we speak it and study it, in our hearts because that is what the new covenant promises, so we can do it. We are expected to learn and do the commandments of Torah. We have the power to choose and are held responsible for that choice. If G-d punished us for failing when He knew we did not have the ability to succeed, He is not just. We know he is just, however, therefore when He tells us to do something it is within our capabilities to do it.
There does, however, seem to be an assumption within the parasha that the people of Israel will choose not to do as the should, that they choose evil rather than good. Aside from all the warnings about the consequences of such actions, there is a promise. After He tells them that all the curses he wanted to put on the enemies of Israel will be placed on them for their disobedience (ch 29) he says that they will return (ch 30:1-10). This is put in the simple future, not the imperative. That means that it is not a command that Israel return to G-d in the captivity but that it is a fact they will. This is the very essence of what it means to be chosen. YHVH will not allow even one of His people to be lost. Yahushua stated that He had not lost one of the ones with whom He had been entrusted. We do not choose our parents, we may have been born into a family of the seed of Avraham and have the advantages that comes with. Or G-d may have chosen us from among the nations. Regardless of how one is chosen, there is something within us that compels us to return, to fulfill the destiny we have been chosen for, the destiny of Israel. It is a destiny we may try to run from for a while but in our captivity, under the duress of the discipline of the One who chose us, we will return. Then we will listen to the voice of YHVH our G-d and observe all that is written in His book with all our hearts and souls. It is a blessing to know that at the end of the promise of discipline for disobedience there is the promise of teshuva and restoration.
Amidst all our study of the Torah, the intricacies we look into, the questions, big and small we ask, many of which go unanswered even at this time, the confusion we sometimes feel, we must know the Torah is meant to be a blessing and a comfort and a section of this week’s parasha proves it. What are the two great questions every man has when he contemplates religious things? “Who is G-d and what does He desire of me”. The Torah is designed to answer those questions. It shows us the character of G-d; to Israel He demonstrated His existence and power in mighty ways. So they were left with the final questions, what does he want?
Simply, he wants relationship and the best and most meaningful relationships are through covenant. Similar to a marriage covenant, without it two people can be friends, even good friends, and there can be benefits to that relationship but it will never be as intimate and rewarding as a marriage covenant. Abraham was a friend of G-d and when G-d wanted to make it a committed and intimate relationship, he made a covenant. Why? Because Avraham had shown himself committed because he kept Torah. G-d wants the intimacy and relationship that comes only through covenant with His people, including you and I. He wants to walk with us as He did Adam when they were in the garden.
The big question is, how do we get to that point? What does he want from us? When we first begin studying Judaism as opposed to the free for all in Christianity, it can seem a daunting task. We go from one rather nebulous command ‘love...’ whatever that means, to 613-around which are innumerable traditions. It seems overwhelming and we may wonder if we will ever be knowledgeable and competent enough to perform the commands to the degree necessary to reap the rewards. I have talked to enough people who have been discouraged by this interpretation of Torah. In reality, Judaism has done what Christianity did for years. In Christianity, the monk was the ideal. Only by living in poverty and celibacy could one really be close to G-d. The rabbis have done the same. Only if you devote yourself to study every moment can you really be close to G-d. Does YHVH really make it that difficult?
Our parasha says no. “It is not hidden from you...” Gnosticism is not a part of this, there are not those with secret knowledge, there are no ‘tricks of the trade’. “It is not in heaven...it is not across the sea...” We do not have to wait for a messenger from heaven or go to some wise man on a mountaintop. “It is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to perform it.” “What does YHVH require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your G-d” “We should not make it difficult for the gentiles who are turning to G-d...” G-d never meant it to be difficult! That is why Y’shua found a problem with some of the traditions and interpretations, because they made it difficult and obscured the intent. Torah is not and end in itself, it is the means to an end. That end is the creation of a righteous, holy, loving, just individual. When we follow the externals of the eternal Torah, we develop these characteristics and when we do, we can enter into covenant. The purpose of the covenant is to confirm a righteousness an individual or a nation has been practicing. When someone seeks G-d, He will be found because the seeker is listening to that which is within him that is made in YHVH’s image. We can all find that, it is not hard, it is not distant, it is available to all.