Parshat Nitzavim: The Guarantee to Return

“Then the Lord your God will restore your captives and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you” (Devarim 30:3).

I find that my most profound connection with the Torah comes when I see myself in the text. When this ancient document reaches out to me amidst my own story, my own struggles, and my own experiences, then it’s as if God is speaking directly to me. And in this week’s parsha, when Moshe paints a picture of Jewish history, including exile and a miraculous national rebirth, I can’t help but see my own miraculous story between the lines. 

At age 15, my confirmation from Hebrew school felt like a goodbye party to my Judaism as opposed to a celebration of it. Indeed, when I arrived at Florida State University, finding the local Hillel for Rosh Hashana was nowhere on my list of priorities. Yet here I am in Israel with my wife, originally from Pittsburgh, with our five Israeli children, all who were born in Jerusalem. Our neighbors, whose families are from India and Yemen and Morocco and Poland, all have their own miraculous stories as well.  

“Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you” (Devarim 30:4).

How could Moshe tell my story 3,300 years ago? Exile would be an easy prediction, but a complete national rebirth back in our historical homeland? Not only are the odds against it, but we are the only nation in history to do it! How did Moshe know with such certainty that no matter how far we were from home, that we would eventually return?

One could argue that these passages prove the validity of Moshe’s prophecy, and there is much to say about that. But I’d like to look at this question through a different lens, one which illustrates one of Moshe’s most important teachings, called teshuva. Because if we look through the lens of teshuva, then we were always going to make it back home someday.

The beginning of this week’s parsha picks up where we left off last week, with the covenant between God and Am Yisrael. The conditions are seemingly binary: if Am Yisrael follows the rules as outlined in the Torah, then incredible bounty and protection will envelope them. But if they deviate from the Torah, then there will be harsh punishment and eventually exile.  

In Chapter 30 of Devarim, Moshe introduces a novel concept called teshuva, usually translated as repentance. Though teshuva does imply remorse and self reflection, the Hebrew root (Shin, Vav, Bet) means “to return.” Self-transformation is one thing, but returning  is wholly different. Transformation is making myself into someone totally different than who I was before. But teshuva, returning, is coming back to our essence. And this is exactly the journey that Moshe outlines. 

First, says Moshe, you will “return to your heart,” meaning you will listen to yourself again. Then he says “you will return to your God,” illustrating an internal spiritual shift. Then God responds in kind, and the  captives will return home, no matter how far they have found themselves. Finally, we are told that God will return to His joy and love for Am Yisrael.

Since Moshe is outlining the processes of reclamation, the word “to return ” is used again and again. To borrow a term from our modern lexicon, Moshe states emphatically that we will inevitably return to our true selves, because nations or individuals cannot live in opposition to their own nature. Like a rubber band pulled too tight, it will eventually find a way to spring back. 

In Rav Kook’s work Orot HaTeshuvah, he writes that teshuva is absolutely certain to come. Why? Because as the Talmud teaches, teshuva preceded the creation of the world. 

In other words, the concept of teshuva in its broadest sense is woven into the fabric of creation. Even before there was a world, so to speak, in God’s mind the idea of teshuva existed. Though we have freewill, and can choose to deviate from the straight and narrow path, there is an underlying force which ultimately pushes us back towards our truest selves, on an individual and a national level.

Though the path may be long and winding, with incredible challenges and heartbreaks along the way, it does have an end, with Am Yisrael back home. And this end is a time of harmony not only for the Jews, but for the entire world. As Moshe says, it will be a time when the hearts of all humanity will have their covering removed, and where Am Yisrael and the rest of the world will live as one harmonious unity. 

Maybe it sounds like a flight of fancy, but here I sit in the land of my ancestors in the modern State of Israel after 2,000 years of exile. So if Moshe’s vision of teshuva has started to come true, then maybe the next stages of teshuva will come to fruition as well.  

Lastly, teshuva is not only a national redemptive process; it is a personal process in which we can all engage, especially as we stand just a few days before the Rosh Hashana. We are not looking for personal transformation; we are looking for personal reclamation. Teshuva is not only about removing thoughts, speech, and actions of which we are ashamed. It’s about painting a broad, holistic vision of ourselves, a redemptive vision of ourselves, our best possible self, so to speak, which shares our gifts with the world. Once we’ve painted that picture, then we work tirelessly to achieve it. This is the spiritual work of teshuva, which is especially appropriate for Rosh Hashanah, and allows us to write ourselves in the Book of Life for the coming year.

So what do you think? What does the picture of your best self look like? How can you work to actualize that picture in the coming new year? And who can you turn to for support and guidance on this journey?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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