Torah with Star

Parshat Nitzavim/Vayelekh: Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30; Isaiah 61:10-63:9.

We are but a week away from the Jewish new year of 5781, simultaneously observing Shabbat and the 19th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.

Since we are in the midst of a pandemic and at the height of the presidential campaign, we have so many thoughts and feelings colliding. I think we need this Shabbat to reflect on where we are going and where we have been these past few months.

Our Torah portion relates to such a time as Moses prepared to leave this earth and pass the leadership to Joshua; the people are preparing to leave their wilderness existence and move into the Promised Land. What awaits them and us?

While we never know the exact answer to this, (or as the Israeli song says Ke she navo nimtza teshuvah —When we get there we will find the answer) we do know that what we have done or not done in the past year does matter in determining where we will be going. It is incumbent on us to reflect on our actions, our words, our thoughts — to do teshuvah, a returning and a turning to our best selves.

But teshuvah is not a quick fix — just saying a few prayers for forgiveness, apologizing to someone and then being done. It is a process which takes time; it is a change in our behavior, in our thoughts and in our hearts. When have we really achieved this change? Our sages tell us in the Talmud (Yoma 86b) that one test is when we are confronted by the same temptation on two future occasions, and we choose to act properly.

In the process of doing this self-reflection, this heshbon hanefesh, we may often find a disconnect between our conscience and our conduct, between the image we project and our actual behavior. Here is where we must not despair; we must begin to take the first steps to bridge the gap and to know that God is pushing us in this direction, cheering us on. “Make an opening for repentance as large as the eye of a needle, and I will make it large enough for wagons and carriages to pass”(Song of Songs Rabbah 5:2.).

Maimonides cautions us that there are things that can get in the way of the process of turning — such as acting out of anger, elevating oneself at the expense of others, condemning others with suspicions instead of proof and standing aloof from the community. (Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah). But once we are ready to admit our shortcomings, repentance can become a motivating force to not only grow in awareness but also to go forward to make permanent changes for good in our lives.

As Moses said to Joshua on taking this new role: Hazak v’ematz — be strong and have courage! 

Rabbi Dorit Edut is the head of the Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network, serves Temple Beth Israel in Bay City and teaches privately.

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