Parshat Netzavim-Vayelekh comprises Moshe’s final words to the Jewish nation and contains a stirring message about the nature of repentance. Deuteronomy chapter 30 opens with the promise of national redemption in reward for repentance:
When all these things befall you . . . and you return to the Lord your God, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul . . . then the Lord your God will return your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. . . You, however, will return to heed the Lord and obey all His commandments that I enjoin upon you this day. And the Lord your God will grant you abounding prosperity in all of your undertakings… For the Lord your God will return to delight in your well-being … once you return to the Lord your God with your heart and soul (based upon JPS translation).
Nechama Leibowitz has pointed out the prominence of the root “shuv” (return) in these lines; various forms of this verb appear seven times within ten verses. In some cases, the verb is used to connote man’s spiritual return to God in reflection and repentance. In others, it applies to God’s actions: He will “return your fortunes” and “return to delight in your well-being.” The passage also associates the Jewish people’s spiritual return with the promise of physical return to the land of Israel. In multiple ways, the Torah associates repentance with the image of return to a place already known.
I find it interesting that this stands in contrast to the story of Abraham, whose spiritual journey begins with the command to leave his land and his father’s house, and to venture to an unknown destination. However, there is a significant point of connection between the repentance described in Parshat Netzavim and the religious quest of Abraham.
Maimonides, in Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, sets forth the history of religion which, in his view, formed the backdrop for Abraham’s spiritual journey. Maimonides writes that mankind was originally monotheistic, but that over time, people erred and began to worship forces of nature as a means of worshipping God. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik has pointed out that Maimonides, in taking this position, opposes an evolutionary view of the history of religion. Rather, as Rabbi Soloveitchik writes: “For Maimonides, faith in God is not a cultural accomplishment to which only civilized man is entitled. Faith is a redeeming act without which man’s whole existence turns into a meaningless, absurd phenomenon. . . God does not require that man be scientifically versed or technologically developed in order to disclose to him the mystery of faith” (“Abraham’s Journey,” pages 20-21). By taking the position that humankind was originally monotheistic, Maimonides expresses the view that Abraham’s relationship with God was, in fact, a return to a previously known truth, even if Abraham experienced it as something new and foreign.
As we approach the High Holy Days and our thoughts turn to mending our relationships and personal shortcomings, I find it inspiring to consider the optimistic view that these sources adopt with regard to human nature and potential for repentance. They suggest that the individual contains the wisdom and goodness required for a deep relationship with God and man, and that the work of repentance is to navigate one’s way back to one’s own best and truest self. Rabbi Soloveitchik, in describing the inner drive that fueled Abraham’s quest for God, draws a comparison to the restlessness that sensitive and imaginative children often feel. By way of illustration, he writes of Beethoven: “From early childhood, Beethoven used to hear melodies. He would say that there was an orchestra hidden somewhere – under the table, behind the curtain, in the attic, or in the oven. . . The orchestra was indeed an orchestra. But it was hidden in him, not outside of him” (“Abraham’s Journey,” page 44).
May the reflection and prayer of the coming weeks enable each of us to find the orchestra within as we recommit to our most deeply held beliefs and values.