Rabbi Emanuel Cohn
Former Avrech in Montreal (2001-2003)
Founder of “Torah MiCinema” – Teaching Film and Judaism
This Shabbat we arrive at the last Shabbat of the old year, before we begin the year of 5765. The main topic these days is –or should be- the issue of Teshuva, inaccurately translated as “repentance”. Inaccurately, because the literal translation of Teshuva means “return” (from the word root “shuv”). Repentance for one’s misconducts might be a result of this “return” but it comprises much more than that.
In modern Hebrew the term Teshuva means “answer” (the rational being that a person who has been asked a question, “returns” -by answering- the ball to the court of the asker). Based on that, Michael Kagan, a thought-provoking spiritual leader of our time, writes in his “Book of Kavvanot”:
“The word Eicha (How) is similar to the word Ayeka (Where?), used as the rhetorical question God asks Adam and Eve in the Garden (Where are you hiding?), but can be understood as the more existential question concerning our True Being. This is the question for Elul and the Days of Awe. Teshuva means literally `return’. It is the leitmotif for this time of the year. Teshuva also means `answer’. If Teshuva means answer then what’s the question? Ayeka – Where are you? Along comes Rosh Hashannah, along comes the blast of the Shofar. WAKE-UP! WAKE-UP! WHERE ARE YOU? And the still, small voice inside can be heard whispering, ‘Psst. Mike, what are you doing out here? Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember where you came from? Don’t you remember where you’re meant to be going?’”
As we mentioned before, Teshuva means return. Return – where to? Isn’t it true that one can only return to a place that (s)he has been before? But where have we been? Where are we supposed to return to?
Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl points out three “places” which should be the goal of our “return”:
1) Return to the innocence of our childhood. Who doesn’t see the purity of a child? Aren’t we amazed when we see our own children and the way they perceive life? Is there anything holier and purer than the innocence of a child? Don’t we sometimes look through our old diaries and childhood pictures and think nostalgically of how good and pure we once were (while recognizing the embarrassing gap between then and present-day reality…)? In Bereshit 8, 21 God promises Noah and humanity after the flood that He “will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth…” The verse states specifically “from his YOUTH” (“minne’urav”), not from his “birth”, or from his “infancy”. From here we can derive that man is born pure, flawless. But when one reaches the stages of “youth”, in other words the age of adolescence, where a person finds himself in the midst of social pressures and internal urges, trying to find his place in society among many contradicting tensions and struggles – there the purity of one’s childhood starts to vanish. Nevertheless, in these upcoming days of Teshuva we try to regain those levels of innocence and purity that we lost since we ceased being children.
2) The second return is of historical-theological nature: The return to Mount Sinai, the oxygen of our nation. We all return to this one-time-experience in human history where God revealed Himself to a whole nation, our nation. There we stood, united as can be, proclaiming “na’ase venishma”, “we will do and listen”.
3) The third return is of spiritual nature: The return of our souls to their source and to what they long for – the closeness to God, the Source of Life. The prophet articulates this idea into one clear call: “Return, O Israel, to Hashem your God” (Hoshea 14, 1). The Midrash brings a metaphor: The Neshama is like the daughter of a king who was married to a “city-man” (or shall we say: “Downtown-guy”…) who wanted to make her happy with all the good foods which were precious to him: Some fresh onions, some garlic etc’. However, she wasn’t able to eat his food – needless to say she couldn’t enjoy it! – because she was used to the “nouvelle cuisine” of her palace… (Kohelet Rabba 6, 7) Although the princess’ conduct would be viewed today as terribly spoilt, the message which our Sages wanted to convey to us is clear: Our soul cannot be nourished by material goods. Only spiritual, eternal values make it really content.
We can not close our thoughts before we have a look at this week’s Parsha, in which we can find a whole chapter on our topic: Teshuva.
”So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind (“vahashevota el levavecha”) among all nations where God has banished you, and you return (“veshavta”) to God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, God will restore (“veshav”) you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you (“veshav”) again from all the peoples where He has scattered you. If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back. God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers.” (Devarim 30, 1-5)
From these verses we understand a fundamental message: A full “Teshuva” cannot remain only a personal-spiritual return. Eventually it must lead to a return to the Land of God. And maybe returning home to Israel comprises all the three returns which were mentioned before: When a Jew comes home to the Holy Land, he has the possibility to return to a pure life of child-like simplicity and spirituality; he also joins his Nation within an independent Jewish state, where his home once was many years ago, i.e. he reconnects to the historical-national aspect; and finally he moves to a land on which “the eyes of Hashem your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” (Devarim 11, 12)
There is not a more appropriate time than the end of our year to recall the different dimensions of Teshuva, and also to internalize that a Teshuva-process which does not (re)connect a Jew to the Holy Land, is incomplete.