American author Thomas Wolfe famously wrote ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’ during the 1930’s (published posthumously in 1940). The book’s hero, George Webber, concludes, ‘You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting, but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.’ The book describes America’s loss of its supposed innocence in the 1920’s and 30’s. But do we, as Jews, agree with this conclusion? This week’s Torah reading discusses this issue.
Our parsha informs us about the return of the Jews at great length, and, it would seem, redundantly: When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—and you will take them back (V’HASHEIVOTA) to heart amidst the various nations to which the Lord your God has banished you, and you will return (V’SHAVTA) to the Lord your God, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, that then the Lord your God will return (V’SHAV) you from captivity and have compassion upon you, and will return (V’SHAV) and gather you from all the nations whither the Lord your God has scattered you (Devarim 30:1-4).
As you can clearly see, this section emphasizes ‘return’ (SHVUT). In fact, even the term for ‘captivity’ in Hebrew is based on the same root, SHUVT’CHA. But the essential question must be: Return from what?
Obviously, there are going to be a plethora of answers among our Sages. I’d like to start with the Seforno, who, I believe expresses the most common approach. At the beginning of the chapter, we’re told that eventually the Jewish people will ‘take to heart’ all the instructions of God. The Seforno explains this to mean that we will regain the ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood (SHEKER) in the world. This is a critical development for our present world when we are bombarded with a tremendous volume of information, much of it balderdash.
Verse 2 presents the next step to that initial process, which returns us to obeying God’s will in this world. The Talmud (Yuma 86a) calls this a ‘return all the way to the Divine Throne of God in heaven’. We are describing a return to a Torah lifestyle.
Finally, we achieve the final stage of ‘return’: Then we will fully understand that everything which has transpired to the Jewish people was an expression of God’s love. All of the tribulations of history happened for the spiritual growth and eventual salvation of the Jewish people in the World to Come.
According to the Seforno the entire section describes spiritual return TESHUVA in the classic sense. This is valuable to our preparations for the upcoming Days of Awe. Of course, there are many others, with the Ramban in the lead, who see this section as predictive of the Messianic Era of return to a rebuilt and resplendent Eretz Yisrael. We all hope and pray that we are actually witnessing that process in the modern State of Israel.
But I would like to suggest a different approach, that I believe is the P’SHAT, literal meaning, of these verses. Initially, we are told ‘you and your children will return to the Lord, your God, and heed (observe) all that which I have commanded you’ (verse 2). This is actually the easiest part to comprehend, if not to accomplish. The Jews and their offspring will keep the Torah as their ancestors promised at Sinai. It’s the next step which is much harder to get our heads around.
We are then told: Then I will return you (verse 3). However, it’s very possible to translate this phrase differently. How about: Then the Lord will return to YOU! We are describing a reciprocal relationship. Look for Me and I will look for you. And now the great distances described in verse 4 aren’t talking about far flung places like Tierra Del Fuego or Timbuktu. There is no discussion of physical distance from Yerushalayim. We’re hearing about the infinite space which developed between us and our Maker. It’s much more tragic than physical exile.
I love my PASUK, you know those verses many of us recite before stepping back after reciting the AMIDA (Shmoneh Esreh). Search for the Lord and Divine power, always seek God’s presence (Tehillim 105:4). That’s the lesson, I believe, from the beginning of chapter 30. Look for God, and God will return to you. I think these verses inspired the Rambam to describe Teshuva this way:
How surpassingly exceptional is the power of repentance! Yesterday, this sinner was separated from the God of Israel, as it is said: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God” (Yeshayahu 59:2); cries, but received no answer, even as it is said: When you pray many prayers, I will not hear (1:15), the sinner cries and the cries are thrown back into the sinner’s face…but today, the penitent is connected to the Divine Presence (SHECHINA), cries are instantly answered (Hilchot Teshuva 7:7).
As we embark on the mission we call the High Holidays, there should be a level of confidence that this process will be crowned with success. We just have to seek it, want it and work at it. Remember, God is rooting for us. We can find our way home; God left a trail of precious crumbs.