By Rabbi Arnold Saltzman
This article appeared in the Washington Jewish Week at http://washingtonjewishweek.com/33731/new-season-in-the-spiritual-cycle/editorial-opinion/torah_commentary/
That week’s Torah portion was Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20.
The synagogue poet Ruth Brin wrote, “In the fall, in the fall, when the leaves are red as blood, we repenteth of our sins.” The idea of the season’s return is nature’s order, yet changing our lives seems to go against nature by suggesting that through repentance, teshuvah, we can cleanse ourselves spiritually and through that we return to a better self and to God.
Nitzavim begins: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God.” For me, there is connection to the time when Jacob dreams of a ladder with angels on it. Upon waking from the dream. Jacob exclaims, “God is in this place and I did not know it.”
Therefore we, together with Jacob and now Moses and the Children of Israel, acknowledge God’s presence. We stand before God, thank God, and return to God.
In Deuteronomy 30:1-10, we find a sequence that uses the verb shuv, meaning “return.” How is this return accomplished? Through teshuvah, repentance. How is this tied to the season? The cycle of life, birth, development, fullness, decline and decay will bring us again to new life and rebirth in nature.
In our spiritual cycle, we are reminded that return and repentance bring us to a place where we can once again perform mitzvot and experience peace. In 30:11, the phrase ha-mitzvah ha-zot (“this instruction”) is understood to mean that the Torah is not only for those who are specialists; rather it is for everyone. Rabbi Obadiah Sforno says that repentance is not beyond man’s understanding and does not require a “wise person” to interpret it.
The Ramban writes that hamitzvah ha-zot refers to teshuvah, since the preceding verses speak about return and repentance. A midrash teaches that every step taken toward God, God mirrors and takes a step toward us. The Rambam (in Hilchot Teshuvah) states that recognition of one’s sin and accepting to never to sin that sin again is the form of repentance required.
In Deuteronomy 29:14 we read, “…and those who are not here with us this day…” Midrash Tanchumah states that the covenant at Sinai was made with our ancestors and with all future generations, even those not at Sinai. A classic question is, what right did our ancestors have to agree to this? Can we accept this?
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the affirmation and acceptance of these inherited obligations. Those who choose Judaism through conversion therefore make the ancestors and the covenant their own.
Near the end of Nitzavim, in verse 30:19, we read that heaven and earth are the witnesses of God, called to proclaim the magnificent work of the creator. We are given a choice of life and death, a blessing and a curse, therefore choose life.
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of Hevrat Shalom of Maryland and Shaʼare Shalom of Waldorf, rabbi emeritus of Beit Chaverim of Calvert County, and cantor emeritus of Adas Israel Congregation.