Few words in the world convey a sense of personal love and reconciliation the way this week’s verses do. After enduring the bleakest predictions about their future, predictions that have come true in horrifying ways, God sends the Jewish people a message of love and reconciliation.
“And it will be, when all these things come upon you the blessing and the curse which I have set before you that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children. then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you. Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, the Lord, your God, will gather you from there, and He will take you from there.”
These words could have only sound like a fantasy just one hundred years ago. The notion that a nation as scattered as the Jewish people will return to their lost homeland, somewhere in the Middle East seemed so out of touch and magical it would be hard to relate to these words. And yet, with eternal love, God recognizes that we will fail, yet we will come back. The same deterministic and pessimistic note which predicts we will fail as a nation and go into exile is filled with optimism and faith that the day will come and we will return to Hashem. While these words seem merely predictive, the rabbis codify them as prescriptive too. It is not just a prediction that we will one day return to God, it is a loving request for us to do so; it is one of the 613 mitzvot. We are called on to do Teshuva.
Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, the great 20th Century Rabbi, and philosopher, used to say that the imperative to believe in the ultimate coming of the Messiah is also an obligation for us to believe in the Jewish people; it is an obligation we believe that one day the Jewish people will do the right things and come back to God.
When entertaining the thought of the entire Jewish people returning to God one might get pessimistic. Human nature has never been very reliable. Albert Einstein famously said:” Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” Yet we are called on to believe. We are asked to believe that we can—that the Jewish people can.
How is this possible? How will the Jewish people come to fulfill all of God’s commandments? The Torah addresses exactly that concern.
“For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?”
Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Rather,[this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can fulfill it.”
Rabbi Yakov Krantz (1740-1804), known as the Maggid of Dubnow, explains this passage with a parable.
There was once a wealthy man who was expecting a very precious package. He lived in a very fancy building. One day he hears a knock on the door. He opens a crack in the door and sees a delivery man huffing and puffing and sweating heavily. Responding to the question of who he is and what he wants, the deliveryman says he has a package for the wealthy man. The man responds before even seeing the package and says:” you do not have my package”.
The delivery man insisted. “Yes, I do”.
“You do not”, the wealthy man remained confident through the crack of his small door.
The deliveryman was surprised. “How do you know it is not your package, you didn’t even see it?!” he somewhat asked somewhat stated.
“My package was of very high value, but it only had five diamonds in it” the wealthy man responded. Since you are sweating and out of breath and have taken a heavy package I know it is not mine”, he concluded.
The commandments we got at Sinai were meant to make our lives happier, more fulfilling, and enhance who we are. If we are suffering and don’t find that the commandments are carrying us, rather than us carrying them, there is something wrong about the execution.
Often, in the rush of getting everything done, we sometimes forget about the joy and happiness Judaism is supposed to bring us. We get entangled in the details and in checking items off our lists, forgetting the big idea. Loving God, following his ways, being happy, and feeling inspired are all at the chore of Judaism.
As we approach Rosh Hashana let us remind ourselves of the joy and inspiration Judaism should have in our lives. Let us remind ourselves of the gifts of Judaism, community, charity, love, compassion, kindness, Shabbat, the study of Torah, and so much more. Let us recommit ourselves to the positives of Judaism and remember that “Rather,[this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it”
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova.