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Parshat Nitzavim V'Yelech

09/07/2023 01:56:33 PM


Rabbi Hearshen

I believe to be a Jew means to be a learner. We all need to spend time growing and learning. I have a weekly chavruta with a fellow rabbi and we learn Talmud together. I spend a lot of time studying in my office to be ready for lessons and sermons. I love to learn with congregants too, and if you’re ever interested in learning with me, please just ask and we’ll make it happen. This week I began a course of study with Hadar in New York City. Hadar is an organization that espouses Jewish observance in a gender equal environment. I look forward to telling you more about this organization in the year ahead. Regardless, the class that I started was on תשובה/Teshuvah/repentance and if it’s possible there are people who are “too far gone” and cannot repent or do תשובה. This concept has been a fascinating way to prepare for the holidays.

We’ve been learning about Pharaoh and if he repented or if he even had the ability to repent. What was really incredible was today we learned a מדרש/Midrash (Pirkei DeRebbi Eliezer 43:8) that he lived a very long time and became the King of Ninevah from the Book of Jonah. It was there that Pharaoh finally atoned for having commented to Moses all those years back “Who is the Lord that I should hearken unto His voice?” (Exodus 5:2). Pharaoh did more than make that comment to Moses… he tried to annihilate our people in direct contradiction to God’s demands and in direct opposition to morality. Generations later when God sends Yonah/Jonah to speak with the King of Ninevah about needing to repent, the King (Pharaoh) orders the people to repent and to fast and to change their ways.

I offer this only as a way of discussing the ability and the power of תשובה. What does it mean to repent? We often mix up two very different parts of the repentance paradigm. We mix up the apology or making amends with the forgiveness. Just because one party does its part, doesn’t necessarily mean the other is obliged to do theirs.  We’ve grown far too accustomed to the societal norm of saying things like “it’s okay”. We’ve grown to believe forgiveness is an automatic and everyone who is sorry deserves to be absolved of what they did. While a convicted criminal may very well feel true and sincere remorse, and may have compensated the victim(s) for their misdeeds, it doesn’t mean the wronged party needs to forgive. Think of the child saying “but I said I was sorry”. By believing that saying we’re sorry is all it takes, we trivialize the real feelings of hurt and pain the wronged party feels and we ignore the victim.

In this week’s Parasha, Nitzavim V’Yelech, we learn a lot about תשובה.

“When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which your God has banished you, and you return to your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. [God] will bring you together again from all the peoples where your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there your God will gather you, from there [God] will fetch you. And your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and [God] will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your ancestors. Then your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring—to love your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live. Your God will inflict all those curses upon the enemies and foes who persecuted you. You, however, will again heed and obey all the divine commandments that I enjoin upon you this day. And your God will grant you abounding prosperity in all your undertakings, in your issue from the womb, the offspring of your cattle, and your produce from the soil. For will again delight in your well-being as in that of your ancestors, since you will be heeding your God and keeping the divine commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Teaching—once you return to your God with all your heart and soul.”  (Deuteronomy 30:1 – 10)

The text paints a picture that all we need to do is change and say we’re sorry and everything will be okay. I would argue in light of the question of Pharaoh and the prospect of his making תשובה, perhaps he did change and did apologize and perhaps he wasn’t or was forgiven, but that’s up to God and not up to us. Like Pharaoh, and like all other people who have messed up over the millennia, we need to recognize we have the ability to do תשובה but we do not control the other side, the being forgiven for what we have done wrong. That should never stand in the way of us improving, changing and sincerely apologizing for the times we’ve found ourselves in the wrong. We can only control our side of the operation and not the other.

Mon, October 2 2023 17 Tishrei 5784