“Repentance-With a Little Help from our Friend in Heaven!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double parashiot, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, we read the uplifting prediction of the eventual repentance and the concomitant redemption of the Jewish people.

In Deuteronomy, Chapter 30, the Torah asserts that the Jewish people will return to G-d and listen to His voice. G-d will return the exiles, have mercy on His people, and will gather all the dispersed from the far ends of the heavens, bringing them to the land that He promised them. They will return to the land that their forefathers possessed and they will posses it. G-d will do good to His people, making them more numerous than their forefathers.

In Deuteronomy 30:6 the Torah states, וּמָל השׁם אֱלֹקֶיךָ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ, לְאַהֲבָה אֶת השׁם אֱלֹקֶיךָ, בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ, לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ, The L-rd your G-d will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring, to love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.

The numerous ominous curses that were previously heaped upon the Jewish people will be removed from G-d’s people and will instead be placed upon Israel’s enemies. The Jews will return to G-d and heed His voice, and perform all the commandments of G-d.

Especially after all the many dreaded imprecations, the promise of redemption is a most welcome and joyous prediction.

Given the beauty of the poetry describing the return and acceptance of the People of Israel, the imagery of “circumcision” is rather dissonant. The Ramban understands “circumcision”  to mean that G-d promises to remove the evil inclination, to the extent that even free will be nullified, enabling the people to worship G-d in the most natural manner.

Maimonides explains that before Adam and Eve defiantly ate the forbidden fruit, there was no need for human beings to know the difference between good and evil. Humans intuitively knew that sin was bad and was to be avoided. Just as animals have the instinct to flee from danger, it was simply a human instinct to be repelled by sin. According to Maimonides, “to love the L-rd, your G-d, so that you may live,” means that the desire for life is to be the natural instinct of the human being. So when G-d removes the impediment and circumcises the human heart, the people will return to the primordial level of naturally doing good.

Other commentators understand the idea of circumcision in a less radical manner. The Da’at Sofrim says that G-d will reduce the evil inclination, thus increasing the ability of the human being to more easily recognize truth and acknowledge that which is wrong, a skill that, according to the Da’at Sofrim, was acquired during the times of exile. This verse clearly adds the important promise that G-d Himself will assist the people in their process of repentance.

The great challenge, however, in the process of repentance, is that human beings are creatures of habit, and habits by definition, do not easily change. Whether it is drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, or checking one’s email incessantly, watching a particular television program or playing the lottery, expressing oneself with inappropriate language, or even buying a particular brand of underwear, none of these habits are easily broken or even modified. Indeed, most people become deeply entrenched in their fixed patterns, seeking their comfort levels, even if they are well aware that their routines are not the most productive or a healthy way to live.

Clearly, the first and most important ingredient in truly effective self-improvement, is the recognition that one’s routines can be improved, that behaviors can be elevated, and that people can always be better than they were a few minutes ago. It is this critical change in attitude that is necessary in order to change one’s behavior, and is the compelling and most essential element, leading to personal and spiritual growth.

G-d promises His people, in the words of the Torah, that if they only try and take the first step, He will circumcise their hearts, and will make it possible for them, and easier for them, to make those changes. He will help His people recognize that change is necessary, and encourage them with His great love and consideration to make those necessary changes, to allow for true self-improvement.

We, today, are still a long way off from returning to the primordial nature of Adam and Eve, who had no evil inclination. Yet, we are fortunate to have access to a method that allows us, with G-d’s help, to make the changes, without losing the gift of free will.

This is the blessing of G-d to His people. This is the blessing of the New Year. This is the true blessing of new beginnings.

Wishing you all a כְּתִיבָה וַחֲתִימָה טוֹבָה, a year of peace, a year in which you will be inscribed for good health and abundant blessing.

May you be blessed.

Rosh Hashanah 5775 is observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 24th, 25th and 26th, 2014.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Sunday, September 28th from dawn until nightfall.