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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelekh: Mindful Teshuvah

This week's Torah parashah/portion, Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Devarim/Deuteronomy 29:9 -31:30), is one of seven double portions that are read it is not a leap year so that all 54 portions of the Torah will be read in the course of a year. This double portion is found near the end of Moses' discourses to the people that he delivered prior to his death. He begins this oration by telling the people that he is addressing his remarks to all those who "stand this day, before the Eternal your God. To enter into the covenant God swore to your ancestors. I make this covenant, both with those who are standing here with us this day and with those who are not with us here this day."

One classical interpretation of this is that Moses is speaking not merely to those that have died, but of all the souls yet to be born. Therefore each of us is just as present at this mythic moment as were our Israelite ancestors.


Later in the parashah Moses says to the people, "This mitzvah/commandment that I place before you is not too difficult for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and teach it to us, that we may observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it?' No, the torah/teaching is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it."


In these remarks to the people Moses uses different forms of the verb shuv/turn seven times. This verb is also the root of the word Teshuvah. Usually translated as repentance, return or turning, Teshuvah is what we are commanded to do during this time of year. It is the mitzvah that is most pressing at this time when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are fast approaching. It is the difficult work that we must do during Elul (the month preceding Rosh Hashanah).  It is the work that then continues during the Aseret Y'mai Teshuvah - Ten Days of Repentance that begin on Rosh Hashanah and end on Yom Kippur.


In his inspiring book This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Time of Transformation Rabbi Alan Lew, may his memory be a blessing, writes that the repetition of the verb shuv in this parashah is meant to point us in the direction of teshuvah. He also interprets the verse stating that the teaching (torah) is "very close to you" as referring to teshuvah.  He reminds us that teshuvah is not "out there," but it is within our hearts and on our lips. Simply put, Lew states "Don't look out the window; look at the window itself. What is the pain that is pressing on your heart right this moment? That's what you need to make teshuvah about. What is occluding the deep connection between you and your fellow human beings? That is also right there over your heart, and that also needs to be looked at."


Often we think of teshuvah as such a daunting task that we never even begin to undertake it. However, if we realize that it is as ‘simple’ as looking within and attempting to find that which is disrupting the natural connection between our hearts and the hearts of others, then the work of teshuvah can begin. We must each take off the glasses with which we view the world and look at what is coloring them, clouding them and causing them to blur our vision. If we do this, then we can finally begin to honestly see what we need to change so that we can remove the dirt and whatever else may be obscuring our vision and causing us to look at the world around us through scratched, damaged, and distorted lenses.


Above I referred to this task as simple, and yet we know that it is actually a complex and daunting task. Yet, it is a task that we must begin – even if we are unsure of the chance for its completion. Tradition teaches that we are meant to take time each day during the month of Elul and during the Ten Days of teshuvah to look at ourselves and take stock of who we are. This act is called Heshbon ha'nefesh, an accounting of the soul.  This accounting is at the core of Teshuvah. It is what enables us to do what I describe above. Heshbon ha’nefesh is the tool with which we remove the barriers around our hearts and clean off the lenses through which we view the world. Heshbon ha’nefesh is what enables us to return to our true selves by looking at what is within us at this very moment with honesty, clarity and mindfulness.


As each of us hopefully begins, continues or simply contemplates beginning this difficult work I would like us to remember the verse cited above, which states that Moses was speaking to “those present today and those not present.” Though traditionally interpreted as referring to those who were alive at that moment and those who were not yet born, I believe it has another meaning. The words Moses is speaking in the parashah, as well as the words and the teachings in the Torah, throughout the centuries and up until these very words that you are reading now are all part of the chain of tradition. They are all part of the eternal teaching of what it means to seek God in our lives, to search our souls, to do teshuvah and to strive for oneness, holiness and wholeness. These essential teachings that are not merely “for those present today.” They are not merely for those who are listening, reading or paying attention in this moment. Rather, these words, these teachings, are also for those who are “not present.” These teachings are for those who are not ready or able to be truly listening or paying attention in this moment.

Even those who are not present or mindful in this moment can be helped and guided by these words and ideas. Perhaps something is penetrating their minds and hearts in spite of their lack of presence. Perhaps some other day they might come across the teachings and they may touch their hearts then.  Perhaps the words are already within them, but they are simply unable to hear them in this moment.  Whether moment when they can hear these words arrives tomorrow, next year or years in the does not matter. What matters is that these teachings, these essential truths of being that are found within so many traditions, are here for all of us at all times. They are here to guide each human being in the task of living and of doing teshuvah. For me, that is the essential meaning of this passage.


After Shabbat ends, Jews traditionally begin the final week prior to Rosh Hashanah selichot (service of forgiveness) on Saturday night. As we approach this time of repentance, forgiveness and renewal, let us commit ourselves to taking a few minutes out of each day to be alone and do the difficult, but ultimately liberating, work of Heshbon ha’nefesh. By doing this we can then make teshuvah with all our heart, all our soul and all our being and continue the work of becoming that which we are always becoming each moment; for that is the essential task of what it means to be human.

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