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Torah for the Times 



Torah Reading: Parshat Nitzvaim - Vayelech, Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30
Haftora: Isaiah 61:10 - 62:8


Shabbat Candle Lighting: 6:53 PM

Shabbat Ends: 7:50 PM 


Removing All The Impediments

It is Near!

“For this commandment that I commanded you today – it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven, to say ‘Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us; so that we can listen to it and perform it.’ Nor is it across the sea, to say ‘who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?’ Rather the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart to perform it.”

According to Nachmanides this verse applies to the Mitzvah of Teshuvah.

What is it about Teshuvah that we must be told that it is not distant from us?

The answer can be derived from a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Makos, chapter 2)

Wisdom was asked: “What is the proper punishment for a sinner?”

Wisdom answered: “The sinners shall be pursued by evil.” (Proverbs 13:)

Prophecy was asked: “What is the proper punishment for a sinner?”

Prophecy answered: “The soul of the sinner shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:)

Torah was asked: “What is the proper punishment for a sinner?”

Torah answered: “Let him bring guilt offering and he will be forgiven.”

The Holy One Blessed be He was asked: “What is the proper punishment for a sinner?”

The Holy One Blessed be He answered: “Let him do Teshuvah and he will be forgiven.”

The Rebbe explains how these different responses to Teshuvah reflect four different perspectives.

The Perspective of Wisdom

From the perspective of wisdom or logic, “the sinner will be pursued by his evil.”

Logic dictates that the punishment will be a direct consequence of the sin. Sin is the cause and suffering is its effect similar to the wound caused by a cut to the finger. Logically, therefore, no amount of regret and resolve could eliminate the wound.

The Perspective of Prophecy

From the perspective of prophecy “the soul of the sinner shall die.”

Prophecy is a direct line of communication with the Divine. A sin – even unintentional – severs that connection. Prophecy thus declares that the sinner must die, inasmuch as his connection has been severed.

Death in this case can be meant in a spiritual sense, in that the degree of communication between the person and G‑d is weakened. The most extreme situations, when the link becomes so weakened that it is severed, can actually lead to physical death as well.

From a spiritual view of the effects of transgression one would have concluded that Teshuvah is ineffective because the connection between us and G‑d has been severed.

The Perspective of Torah

From the perspective of Torah, the sinner can atone by bringing a sacrifice. Torah is G‑d’s wisdom. It therefore transcends even the lofty level of prophecy. Thus, a prophet may not introduce any new Torah laws.

From the perspective of Torah, the sin is far more serious than even when seen from the perspective of prophecy, for Torah is far more sensitive to a breach of its commandments. Arguably, even death cannot atone for this.

Torah is, however, a Torah of kindness (Toras Chesed). Torah thus considers the mitigating factor that “a person does not sin unless a spirit of folly enters into him,” and that sin is caused by the (superimposed) animal nature within man. The Torah thus provides for a solution – an animal sacrifice – that underscores how sin derives exclusively from the domination of the person’s animal nature at the time of the transgression.

However, except for the sacrifice, one could have concluded that Teshuvah is inadequate.

The Perspective of G‑d

On one hand, it can be argued, a transgression when seen from the perspective of G‑d Himself, is more acute, and would hardly be considered pardonable.

On the other hand, G‑d’s utter transcendence renders the blemish harmless.   As Job declared (35:6): “If your sins multiply, what have you done to Him?” To access this transcendent level of G‑d, before whom sin is irrelevant, we must arouse a similar transcendent response from within our soul.

This is the essence of Teshuvah, where we transform ourselves from one extreme to the other.

In Rambam’s words:

“Teshuvah is when the One who knows all secrets can testify that he (the sinner) will no longer return to his folly.”

This generates a reciprocal response from G‑d, who will elevate the erstwhile sinner from the deep spiritual abyss – to the pinnacle of holiness.

Thus, from G‑d’s unique perspective, Teshuvah is indeed effective and can bring atonement.

Three Plus One

This, then, is what the Torah meant. Despite the arguments against the efficacy of Teshuvah from the perspectives of wisdom, prophecy and Torah, G‑d allows the returnee to rise above those constraints and barriers. G‑d empowers us to erase the past with no more than a sincere resolve for the future and remorse for the past.

There is an additional, nearly unbearable impediment: When G‑d Himself tells a person that he or she cannot do Teshuvah. One could reasonably have concluded that, in that case, it would be an insurmountable obstacle.

However, from the Talmudic narrative concerning the renegade sage, Elisha ben Avuyah, we can see that it is not so. Even when G‑d tells you there is no hope it is not His final determination.

Elisha ben Avuyah, who was nicknamed Acher-the other one, that describes his negative otherness, was challenged by his devoted disciple Rabbi Meir to return to G‑d.  Acher’s response was that every day a heavenly voice emerges from Mount Sinai and declares: “Return, you errant sons.” When he heard this heavenly declaration, it had the caveat: “except for Acher.” Acher was convinced that G‑d Himself considered him a lost cause; a total outcast.

Acher was wrong. Even when G‑d tells you that “you are a lost cause,” G‑d is simply subjecting you to a deeper and more formidable challenge to elicit even deeper feelings of Teshuvah.

Four Expressions: Four Challenges to Teshuvah

This may explain the four expressions that describe the elusiveness of Teshuvah in the foregoing verse: a) “It is not hidden from you;” b) “it is not distant;” c) “It is not in heaven”; and d) “Nor is it across the sea.”

These four expressions reflect the four impediments to Teshuvah discussed above:

The impediment from the perspective of logic, spirituality, Torah and those that are G‑d imposed.  And yet, the power of Teshuvah is such that it allows us to break through all barriers.

Teshuvah and Redemption

The Talmud states that the greatness of Teshuvah is that it hastens the Redemption.

If Redemption and Teshuvah are related, it suggests that there are also four parallel impediments to Redemption that we can and will overcome:

The first impediment is logic. Based on the current geopolitical state of the world the rational mind will argue that it is impossible for the world to change drastically in an instant.

The second impediment is spiritual. How can a determinedly materialistic world be transformed into a spiritual world?

The third impediment is Torah. How can a world so far from Torah values embrace Moshiach, who is all about Torah?

The fourth impediment may come from G‑d Himself, who may sow doubt in our minds as to the likelihood of Moshiach coming imminently.

The lesson of Teshuvah is that, just as Teshuvah, the medium that brings Redemption, is eminently accessible despite the four impediments, so too Redemption is a reality that will break through all barriers.

Indeed, Moshiach is referred to as Haporetz or ben Partzi, which means “the one who breaks through barriers.”

May we see the final barrier to Redemption breached and may we all have a good and sweet New Year!