“The Return to G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

On the heels of last week’s parasha, Kee Tavo, and G-d’s reproof of the Jewish people contained therein, this week’s parasha, parashat Nitzavim, speaks of the return, repentance and redemption of the Jewish people.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 30:1-2, states: “V’ha’yah chee yah’voh’oo ah’leh’chah kol ha’d’vah’rim hah’ay’leh, ha’b’ra’cha v’ha’k’lah’lah ah’sher nah’tah’tee l’fah’neh’chah, vah’hah’shay’voh’tah ehl l’vah’veh’cha, b’chol ha’goyim ah’sher hee’dee’chah’chah Hashem Eh’loh’keh’chah shah’mah. V’shav’tah ahd Hashem Eh’loh’keh’chah, v’sha’mah’tah v’koh’lo, k’chol ah’sher ah’noh’chee m’tzav’cha ha’yom,” It will come to pass when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you, then you will take it to your heart among the nations, where the L-rd, your G-d, has dispersed you. And you will return onto the L-rd, your G-d, and listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul.

Serious students of Jewish history are well aware that there has never been a period of peace for the Jewish people without a concomitant return of the people to G-d. Although it seems rather simplistic, over three thousand years of Jewish history unequivocally confirm that allegiance to G-d brings blessing, while sinful behavior brings only curse. The Torah, therefore, adjures the people to take it to heart and to realize that the way to achieve peace and tranquility is by adhering to the Torah and to G-d’s commandments. Only this will lead to the ultimate redemption.

The Sforno notes that it should not be the hardships, plagues and suffering that lead Jews to return, but rather the conclusive proof of Jewish history that proper behavior leads to salvation.

But what of those who sin, will they too have an opportunity to be redeemed?

The Talmud, in Brachot 34b, cites Rabbi Abahu as saying: “In a place where penitents stand, even the most righteous cannot stand.” This statement raises a question. What advantage do the penitents, who were once sinners, have over those who have never sinned?

The Maggid of Mezeritch cites the following parable:

A king had two sons. One prince maintained a very close relationship with his father, and would visit the king regularly. The other son kept his distance, and would visit only infrequently.

As years passed, the estranged son began to distance himself even further, until he practically forgot his father, and his father’s special distinction. He befriended coarse people, and started to behave like them, showing no respect to his father or to the monarchy that his father represented.

When the king heard of the evil path that his son had chosen, he was terribly dismayed. But, because of his love for his son, he took no action. As his heart filled with pain, he found himself saying, “Woe to the son who has exiled himself from his father’s table, and gone to the place of the robbers and brigands.”

After many years, the estranged son had remorse, and decided to return to his father, to plead for forgiveness from the king and to ask for compassion upon his soul.

When the prodigal prince arrived before his father, he fell on his face, and, with great sincerity, began to plead, declaring: “I have sinned, I have transgressed, I have erred before you, my father, O great king. I now declare that I will return in full repentance before you. I confess my sins, and vow, that from now on, I will be a faithful son to you.”

When the father saw that the son had returned with a full heart, he was filled with compassion and joy. Love bounded upon love, and compassion upon compassion, toward his son who had returned. The king’s love for his returning son was so great, that it was now even greater than for the son who had been close to the king all along. After all, the king was used to being together with his loyal son. But he barely ever saw his estranged son, and had nearly given up hope that he would ever see him again. The former prodigal child whom he had almost lost, now filled his father’s heart with great joy, increasing his father’s love for him.

The Maggid of Mezeritch expounds: Our rabbis declare that in the place where the penitents stand, even the most righteous cannot stand.

Explains the Maggid: Why should G-d feel closer to the penitent than to one who has never sinned? Because the penitent has been distanced from his Father in Heaven. Now that the sinner has decided to come back and return from great distances, with all his heart and all his might, the Father feels a special closeness and love for that child. The previous estrangement has added to the love, making the heart rejoice all the more.

This is not to suggest that it is at all acceptable to distance oneself from G-d only to return in repentance at a later date. The Talmud (Shabbat 153a) records that Rabbi Eliezer stated that one should return one day before one’s death. When Rabbi Eliezer’s students noted that one never knows when one will pass, he responded that every person should return every day lest he die suddenly having lost the opportunity to return. Obviously, we must take stock of where we stand every single day.

May we all merit during this period of Teshuva, to return fully, and to be accepted back by our Father in Heaven with His abundant love.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a Shanah Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year.

Rosh Hashanah 5773 is observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, September 16th, 17th and 18th, 2012.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Wednesday, September 19th from dawn until nightfall.