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You would think it would be, we are at the end of the Torah but as we wind down our Parsha series here, I really want to use this Parsha to bring to a conclusion, themes that we have been talking about over the last 3 weeks and on a larger sense, really the entire five books of Moses itself, that begins with Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and these people lived a long, long time ago in a land far, far away but when the Torah ends, it’s not talking about people who lived long ago anymore. It actually seems to be talking about us, right here today. There is a section of the Torah just as it nears its end and it seems to me that you can’t read nowadays without really getting a chill down your spine and asking yourself, is the Torah really talking about us?
What I am about to say right here is really the third part in the little three part series that began with Parshat Netzavim Vayeilech, continued with Parshat Haazinu and this prophetic section which is also found in Parshat Netzavim I think it really is a capstone to it all. Parshat Haazinu left us with a problem, we talked about this problem last week. The point of shirat haazinu, this song in which the heaven and earth themselves are witnesses seems to be arrest a terrible cycle, a cycle in which devastating consequences will be inflicted upon the Jewish people over time, they will misunderstand the meaning of what is happening to them, they will tell themselves half-truths, that God is not with them and yes, God is not with them but that’s not the whole truth and a half truth is kind of a whole lie. Parshat Haazinu lays the truth bear but even after the Jews understand that God doesn’t leave them willingly and come to understand their own part in bringing about God’s leaving them. The question that faces you then is, okay, so now what?
So let’s say, yeah you realize the truth. God left you because you left him first. Great! So it’s all my fault. Here I am feeling alone, as a nation we have suffered hardship, national devastation. So good, we were the ones who provoked God’s abandonment but where does that really leave me?
It turns out that the Torah seems to address this question, I think in a very, very profound way. Through a section of text that is sometimes actually called Parshat Hateshuvah. Two weeks ago, we talked about a terrible cycle of abandonment, a chain reaction, event upon event that leads if we don’t somehow arrest that cycle to national disintegration. It was if there was this terrible dance going on in which every tragic step of our pulling back gets mirrored by a step God in turn takes away from us as well. Fascinatingly it turns out that the way back from this abandonment also takes the form of a dance. Instead of a dance leading to destruction, this dance is cathartic and joyous. It is a dance of rejuvenation, a dance that has the effect of rebuilding a nearly shattered relationship between the Israelites and God. This dance I think has much to teach us because the harder truth is, shattered relationships do not get rebuilt in an instant. The process is slow and it has discrete steps.
I want to examine this Parshat Hateshuvah with you and see if we can unravel its meaning, see if we can discern the dance.
Parshat Hateshuvah appears in what we call Parshat Netzavim right before shirat haazinu, which we talked about last week. In a minute, I will sit down with you and read the Parshat Hateshuvah, but for now, just suffice it to say it is talking about the Jews returning to God, God being nice to the Jews, the Jews love God, all their heart all their soul it’s all very wonderful stuff but the problem is that as you look at this, it just strikes you, you are just reading almost a badly written hallmark card. Its long winded and it’s just repetitious. Everything seems to be painted in the same rosy hue. Now, I remember when I first walked into Disney land as an adult, I was struck with the fact that the same four words were everywhere. ‘Celebrate’, ‘Magic’, ‘Dreams’, ‘Imagine’. All you had to do is to rearrange the words to create the appropriate slogan. Celebrate your dreams, imagine your celebration. It seems like something of this sort is actually going on the Torah, in Parshat Hateshuvah. For example say, look at verse three, look at verse 10, from the beginning to the end. Just in those verses, everything is about these four phrases – return, doing mitzvah, love, listening to God’s voice and yeah, join, celebration too. It all sounds so Disney-esque, but Disney, at least as an adult, struck me as superficial and kind of boring. There was no story in Disney. Only slogans. Is Parshat Hateshuvah just about slogans too?
So I don’t think it is but in order to understand why not, we actually need to look at the text closely. We need to discern that what at face value just seems like a big cacophony of happy words is in fact subtly structured dance. Each move by one partner evokes reciprocal move by the other partner and each move is perfectly calibrated, so that compliments, the partner’s previous step, in an exquisite and finely tuned way. I want to suggest that if we really want to understand Parshat Hateshuvah, we need to actually break a section up into stages, so we are going to do this in slow motion, take it apart, there is actually seven stages in this dance.
Okay, beginning of Parshat Hateshuvah, v’hayah, ‘and it shall be’, ki-yavou aleicha kol-hadvarim haeleh, ‘when all of these terrible things happened to you’, habrachah v’haklalah, ‘the blessing but then the curse’, asher natati l’faneicha, ‘that I place before you today’ and here is stage one. Vahashevota el-l’vavecha, ‘you will return it to your heart’, b’kol hagoyim asher hedichacha Elohecha shamah, ‘and all of the nations that God has dispersed you through’. Clearly the Torah is addressing here a nation in exile, a nation that has gone through terrible trauma, finds its national character shattered. It is no longer in its land, it is just dispersed throughout the nations and in that state, the first thing that happens is that you return to your heart but more precisely you return yourself to your heart. What does it mean to return to yourself your own heart? Well, let’s go back to Parshat Haazinu, Haazinu is really all about cognition, figuring out that in the great, terrible destructive dance is the dissolution of Israel’s national body politic as it were and the terrible falling apart that led to exile. You have to figure out that you are the one who took the first step backwards. Now what happens after you figure that out, I mean if you bring it into personal relationships, if you just think about a lover and their beloved and they get into a fight and then someone realizes oh my gosh, I took the first step backward here. So you would say, well, after that everybody lives happily ever after. You realize, you apologies, it is good but in real life that is not the way it works because there is a heart involved, it is not as cut and dry just as mind. If I feel rejected, even if I can explain why I feel rejected, somehow, it hard to just hug you, even if I was at fault, I just feel numb, I just can’t do it. That I think is what’s going on here. Mind cognizes and mind presents its verdict to heart but then the heart, has to weight in. Vahashevota el-l’vavecha. Mind presents the heart the facts and then, stage two.
Now, I want to suggest that in order to really understand what’s going on here, you have to understand that the Torah is going to tell you its stories through discrepancies. There is a verse that we are reading, that sounds eerily similar to verse at a very end here, verse 10. There is like four different elements and these four elements, they appear here in verse three, they reappear in verse 10 but then they are slightly different when they reappear. Listen to the story of these discrepancies tell. Here verse three, v’shavta ad-Hashem Elokecha, ‘and you will return until God’, v’shamata b’kolo, ‘and you will listen to his voice’, k’chol asher-anochi metzavcha hayom, ‘according to all these that I command you today’, b’chol-l’vavecha u’vechol-nafshecha, ‘with all your heart and with all your soul’. The four elements, they are highlighted in four different colors. Go to the first one, v’shavta ad-Hashem Elokecha, ‘you will return until God’, what does that really mean? Well, compared to the orange element, the bottom. Ki tashuv el Hashem Elokecha, ‘when you will return to God’, what’s the difference between returning until God and returning to God? When I return to God I make it all the way there. When I return until God, it’s like I am always trying to get there. It’s like in calculous towards the limit and never quite make it there. Now think exactly how does the barrier express itself? It expresses itself in two ways, with heart and with the hands. With emotions and with actions. Emotions first, look at the red element, b’chol-l’vavecha u’vechol-nafshecha, there is a sense of longing in this return, a sense of passion but if you know your bible, you know that b’chol-l’vavecha u’vechol-nafshecha almost always gets paired with the notion of love like v’ahavta et Hashem Elokecha b’chol-l’vavecha u’vechol-nafshecha, ‘you shall love God with all your heart and with all your soul’. There is no love here, there is a wanting, a longing. The heart, who has just been presented with a case made by mind, just can’t feel and love is absent and because love is absent, actions are absent too. Look at the blue element, green element, v’shamata b’kolo, you want to listen to God’s voice, you will listen to God’s voice but then, something strange occurs, k’chol asher-anochi metzavcha hayom, ‘you will listen to God’s voice like I am telling you to do today’. What does that mean – like I am telling you today? You will listen to God’s voice to do what it is that he is telling you to do, right? No, no, no, no, no, you are not listening to God’s voice to do what he is commanding. Look at the end, look at the discrepancies, the blue and the green at the end, ki tishma b’kol Hashem Elokecha lishmor mitzvotav, there you are listening to the voice of God to do what it is that he commands you but not up here, not in the beginning. At the beginning, you are just listening to God’s voice, it is almost like you are stripping out God’s words. God is talking to you and you are saying God I can listen to the raw voice behind what it is that you are saying but the words are just bouncing off of me, I can’t cognize them, I just can’t do it, I don’t feel the love and I cannot act in your service right now. I am longing to want to listen, it is a meta kind of wanting like I want to, want to like I want to stop smoking, well, what are you doing with the cigarette in your hand? You know, I want to, want to stop but longing cannot really pierce the barriers. There is a barrier in the heart, a barrier in the hands. We have taken a baby step back towards God, that’s only a baby step. But God reciprocates that step.
Stage 3, v’shav Hashem Elokecha et-shevutecha, ‘God will return your captives from all of your places of exile’, v’rechamecha, ‘and will have compassion upon you’, v’shav, ‘and he will return’, v’kibetzecha mikol-haamim shamah, ‘and he’ll gather you in from all the nations’, asher hefitzecha Hashem Elokecha, ‘that God has scattered you there’. Im yihyeh nidachacha biketzeh hashamayim ‘Where ever your rimnance have been pushed to the ends of the heavens’, misham yekabetzecha Hashem Elokecha, ‘from there, God will gather you’, u’misham yikachecha, ‘and from there he will take you and he will bring you to the land, that your forefathers inherited’, v’rishtah, ‘and you, yourselves will inherit it’. God is exquisitely mirroring everything that we did. The first thing that we did was v’hashevta el levavcha, we returned something to our heart, for our hearts consideration and in fact, that is exactly what God is doing.V’shav Hashem Elokecha et shevutecha v’richamecha, God is also returning something to his heart because the verb here v’richamecha, is a heart verb, is a feeling verb. Compassion is a function of the heart and what’s the second thing that we did? V’shavta ad Hashem, we returned to God, we couldn’t quite get there, we returned until God, we were getting as close as we could, God, our core, our national center and now, God returns us to another core, to our land. V’shav v’kibetzecha mikol-haamim, God gathers us in to our center, a mirror of our trying to come close to our theological center, to God, where we come from spiritually.
And now, that brings us to stage four, umal Hashem Elokecha et-levavcha v’et-levav zarecha, God will circumcise your heart as it were, l’ahavah et-Hashem Elokecha bechol-levavcha u’bechol nafshecha, so that you will love God with all of your heart, with all of your soul. It is strange but the way the text phrases it, even before we get into exactly what this means is almost like as a step taken together by the people of Israel and God.
If the first and the second steps of this dance were taken by us and the third step is taken by God, this step is being phrased as if it is something that God and us take together. What’s God’s role and what is our role? Well, our role is love. Love, that was the part that was missing before. Bechol-levavcha u’bechol nafshecha. These words that have appeared before, these adjectives, ‘with all your heart and with all your soul’, they are now being paired with their natural anteceded, which is love, L’ahava et-Hashem Elokecha, somehow our ability to love has been released, has been set free and we excitedly, exuberantly ravel in our ability to love God but how did that happen, it happened because of something God did, what did God do? The way the verse phrases it, God circumcised our hearts but what does that mean? If God made us love him, by messing with our hearts then we are not even responsible for it, we didn’t have free will. I don’t think that’s what it means. It is referring to the last thing God did, God gathered in your exile, after centuries brought them back and that releases our capacity to love. It is if God is lifting that emotional barrier, that sense of numbness that we have. We can love again and that is stage 4.
Step 5, V’natan Hashem Elokecha et kol-haalot haeleh al-oyvecha v’al-sneicha asher redafucha, the next thing that happens is that you are secure in your land. When you are on your land, you need security from enemies, when God provides that security, he takes another step towards you. Having seeing this, we take another step towards God. You know, when you read this whole Parhsat Hateshuvah, it just hits you straight in the face, the Israelites haven’t even done anything yet, they haven’t actually even reformed their ways, they haven’t changed what they are doing. It’s been all in cognitive and finally it’s been emotional. But after love has been felt, after these baby steps and the dance have been taken together, you finally get to accommodating step, the step were action, finally becomes possible.
V’atah tashuv, ‘and now, you will return’, v’shamata b’kol Hashem, ‘you will listen to the voice of God’ but this time, it’s not just listening to the voice, it’s the commands that come with it. V’asitah et-kol-mitzvotav asher anochi metzucha hayom, ‘you will do all of the commands that I tell you today’. There is nothing holding you back anymore. Mind fluidly leads to heart, heart leads to action and then stage 7, the final reciprocation by God, you acted in God’s interest, doing God’s commands, God will bless actions that you take in your own interest. V’hotircha Hashem Elokecha b’chol maaseh yadecha, there are two kinds of actions, there are actions people take in service of God and actions people take in their own service. They plant, they harvest, they accumulate wealth. God will cause blessings to come on those actions that pri bitnecha, v’pri bemecha, all of the fruits of your field, of your crops, of your children. Ki ashuv Hashem lasus alecha l’tov, ‘God indeed will return to rejoice over you’, caasher-sas al-avotecha, ‘as he rejoiced over your forefathers’. Our return to God was now a full throttled return, not just cognitive but emotional as well. Real love, real joy that expressed itself in action and now, God reciprocates that with a return which is full throttled as well. A return that expresses joy. God rejoices over us, as he rejoiced over our forefathers and in return that expresses itself in action, in blessings that come to our activities.
So, there you have it, a dance with 7 steps. The dance with 7 steps does have a middle step. It seems kind of significant to be that fourth step, is really about love. And if you think about that, isn’t that really what the whole dance is about? It’s about how love can wend its way back into our relationship with God after so much pain, so much rejection. Whether that rejection is real, isn’t really even the point. It feels like it is real and the heart knows what it feels even if the mind politely disagrees sometimes. The dance is about teaching the heart to love again and all the consequences that flow from that.
There is something poignant about that picture, I think and I want to highlight it for you. (Cut 1:20-1:46) The dance begins with a kind of tragedy, a nation that feels it cannot yet love. What’s God’s response to that? What would be your response if someone you wanted to love said, I can’t really love you back right now? You know, you might have imagined at the end this nation that you cannot yet love would be would be the deathknell of a relationship that is trying to recover. Who wants to stay close to someone who cannot love you back? What’s striking to me is how that’s not the case here. God is exquisitely patient with us, he gives us permission as it were not to love yet, what a great gift. When we are numb, when we don’t yet feel anything towards God but with all our hearts we want to feel, in that confusing situation God says, look, it’s okay. God understands the way back into the process. That’s what Parshat Hateshuvah is about, that patience, at each step he doesn’t ask more than what we can give.
I want to come back to one other really fascinating implication all of these. With this, I want to close. When you read Parshat Hateshuvah, it seems to me, doesn’t it all hit very close to home? The great choreographer in the sky states that the dance will begin at a moment when great tragedies have struck our people, when we are exiled, scattered throughout the earth. In the wake of those tragedies, Parshat Hateshuvah says, we will stand back and take stock of what’s happened to us. God will reciprocate our baby steps towards him by gathering in our exiles, but the people he will bring back are the people who have being numbed or dazed by tragedy, they will yearn but they won’t quite know what they are yearning for yet. They will want to want to be close to God, but that’s all.
So is it just me, or does that not sound like what’s happened just the last 60 years? For the first time in the recorded history a people wiped off the face off its land, a full 20 centuries ago, have returned to its ancestral home and begun to rebuild it. And who are the people who did that? Refugees of the massive pogroms of the 1880s, those were the first wave. They were followed by the waves of other refugees from the European conflagration, the Holocaust. For the most part, these were not deeply religious people, they were people who were yearning but they were also numb. God promised bringing the nation back from the ends of the earth. Take a cab to the restaurant in Jerusalem these days, the cabbies parents might be from Aleppo. The restaurant owner might be from Morocco. Look at the table seated next to you, there is an Australian doctor, he is chatting with an Ethiopian air force pilot. Each of these people represent immigration waves involving tens of thousands of men, women and children. So right there, in the space of a few blocks, in five minutes, you have encountered a little microcosm of Parshat Hateshuvah. This is the way it is now but it was foretold then.
And the process continues. It isn’t over with the ingathering of the exiles. Parshat Hateshuvah tells us that’s just the first step, a confidence building measure, as it were. Warmth comes back into the relationship. Other baby steps ensue. God provides protection to the new fledgling state, we reciprocate that feeling of protection with the desire of our own to reciprocate that divine kindness and the dance goes on. How far are we in this dance? It is hard to say for sure but that we are dancing the dance, that seems impossible I think to deny.
You know the bible begins with the early history of men, people like Adam and eve, Cain and Abel, Noah but it ends with us. Yes, nominally it ends with the death of Moses but that death is a phantom death. God promised Moses that before he died, his final act would be to teach the song of Haazinu to the people and that song would be in an eternal witness to us. Through its explanation of our history, we would always sense Moshe’s presence among us. The point of that song was to allow Parshat Hateshuvah to flourish in Jewish history for real, not just on the pages of the book, to allow future generations to participate in an ingathering of exiles to recover from national tragedy and to participate in a carefully crafted dance, closeness with the Divine.
Things are not perfect in the land of Israel, not by a long shot but we should make no mistake about it, we are participants, not just bystanders in Jewish history. Just as our national journey seemed like it could not become any crueler, we have lived to see the arrival of a fragile gift, a glass slipper as it were. Cinderella has finally arrived at the ball and the band has struck up a tune, let the dance begin.
1. Bereishit: Does Man 'Acquire' Woman?
2. Noach: Why Did God Destroy the World?
3. Lech Lecha: Covenant With God
4. Vayeira: Abraham's Struggle With Loyalty
5. Chayei Sarah: What Makes For A Successful Life?
6. Toldot: A Conversation For the Ages
7. Vayeitzei: Consequences of Jacob's Deceit
8. Vayishlach: Becoming a Person of Integrity
9. Vayeishev: Who Really Sold Joseph?
10. Miketz: Why Didn't Joseph Write Home?
11. Vayigash: The Epic Confrontation Between Judah and Joseph
12. Shmot: If Midrash is Real, Why Isn't It Peshat?
13. Va'era: Did God Take Away Pharaoh's Free Will?
14. Bo: Did God Really Need Ten Plagues?
15. Beshalach: What Does It Mean to Have Faith?
16. Yitro: The Marriage of God and Israel
17. Mishpatim: Female Servitude...Wait, What?
18. Terumah: Is There a Face Hiding in the Tabernacle?
19. Tetzaveh: Where Is God In a Physical World?
20. Ki Tisa: Moshe's Benevolent Chutzpah
21. Ki Tisa: Epilogue
22. Vayikra: Can Leaders Make Mistakes?
23. Tzav: What Does It Mean To Survive?
24. Shemini: Why Did God Reject Nadav and Avihu?
25. Tazria: The Bizarre Purification of the Metzora
26. Metzora: Living Within the Community
27. Acharei Mot: The (Surprising) Purpose of Yom Kippur
28. Kedoshim: How Can I Achieve True Love?
29. Emor: What Sabbath Is All About
30. Behar: Why Does Land Have To Rest?
31. Bechukotai: Why Would God Curse His People?
32. Bamidbar: Who Cares About Genealogy?
33. Shelach: Is Hope Irrational?
34. Korach: Can We Influence God?
35. Chukat: Was Hitting the Rock So Horrible?
36. Balak: Balaam, Prophet For Hire?
37. Pinchas: What Does It Mean To Be Zealous For God?
38. Matot: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic?
39. Masei: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic? II
40. Devarim: What Does It Mean To Have Faith?
41. Va'etchanan: Seeing Layers in the Ten Commandments
42. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 1/2
43. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 2/2
44. Re'eh: The Strange Laws Of Jewish Slavery
45. Shoftim: The Line Between Murder And Apathy
46. Shoftim: Epilogue 1
47. Shoftim: Epilogue 2
48. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 1/2
49. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 2/2
50. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 1/2
51. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 2/2
52. Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Where's the Happy Ending? - Part 1/3
53. Ha'azinu: A Unique Nation - Part 2/3
54. V'Zot Habracha: Looking Towards the Future - Part 3/3
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