I have been thinking a lot about the concept of return, especially this year. In just a few days, many people will return to synagogues, or other prayer gatherings, in person, perhaps for the first time in over 18 months. There will be trepidation, excitement, anticipation and nervousness, all emotions that are exactly normal for this time of year, a time where we are supposed to engage in a spiritual return, known as teshuvah.
In this week’s Torah reading, Nitzavim, we realize that teshuvah begins now. We read in Deut. 29:9-14:
You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, Your little ones, your wives, and your stranger who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; That you should enter into covenant with the Lord your God, and into God’s oath, which Adonai your God makes with you this day.
What does it mean to read these lines, just a few days before the High Holidays?
First, I would suggest that engaging in Jewish life overall, and spiritual teshuvah in particular, is in the reach of all of us. It isn’t just for those who have been active Jewishly, throughout the year. It is for anyone who is able and willing to return (physically or virtually) and re-enter, in a myriad of ways, but certainly spiritually to a life of meaning, substance, and fulfillment.
Each of us is given this opportunity every year because there is always more ways to learn, always more ways to grow. It also means that Jewish communities must be open to those who are spiritual seekers, trying to find a path to engaging in Jewish life, even if it isn’t always so clear how someone might arrive at that moment.
No one is expected to do this on their own. Rabbi Noach Jaffe, the Lekhivitzer rebbe, taught that “all that the Creator demands is that a person make a beginning in the right direction; thereafter, God will aid him/her to continue on the right path.”
So how does that happen? To me, it happens with the help of the community. In Deut. 13:5, it says, “After the Lord your God shall you walk.” One of my favorite teachings in the Talmud asks what this verse means. It answers by suggesting all the ways we can follow in divine ways:
Just as God clothes the naked, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked. [Just as] the Lord “appeared unto [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners, as it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners. (Sotah 14a)
Each of us should play a role in helping one another on life’s path and on a journey of teshuvah. We should open our hearts as others do as well. We should look for the good in people. We should give people the benefit of the doubt, and if done sincerely, we should give people the opportunity to seek forgiveness from us.
We should, in short, walk in the ways of God.
And as Maimonides teaches in the Laws of Teshuvah, “Don’t doubt that we human beings have the capacity to choose good over evil. For as Moses said, ‘See, I set before you this day life and good, death and evil…. I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — so that you and your children after you will live.” (Deut. 30:15, 19)
This has been a hard year. Much has been out of our control. And yet, there are things that we can manage, choices we can make, relationships we can repair. As Dr. Arnold Eisen, the former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote:
Moses is aware that much remains beyond our control of individuals. We have to play the cards we are dealt, as they say. We cannot change the past. But there is so much we can change, so much we do control, and in that immense space of possibility — like a Land beyond a narrow river — lies the chance for a life well lived, a person who receives and bestows blessing, a community that practices goodness and mitigates suffering.
So as we enter this new year, and return to what we hope a meaningful, healthy, complete life can be, may we do it with the strength to embark on this journey ahead with confidence and humility, strength and support, love and compassion, to encounter what we need to as we re-enter, together.
Rabbi Rachel Ain is rabbi of Sutton Place Synagogue.
Friday, September 3, 2021
Elul 26, 5781
Light candles at 7:07 p.m.
Torah Reading: Nitzavim: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9
Shabbat ends 8:04 p.m.