Tag Archives: Dvar Torah

A Thought on Tshuva

20 Sep

We currently find ourselves in the middle of the season of repentance, introspection, self-examination, and tshuva (return). Ideally, we are turning inward to inspect who and what we are, what we do, and how we do it. Our quest is for the betterment of self as a means to achieve a closer relationship with God. We delve into the ways we erred, strayed, or deliberately turned away from God and each other. Although tradition teaches that striving for repentance may be undertaken at any point during the year, it also teaches that this a time of special closeness, דרשו ה’ בהמצאו קראהו בהיותו קרוב (Seek God while He can be found, call out to Him when he is near, Isaiah 55:6). Within this עת רצון (time of grace) the opportunities to turn toward God are magnified.

The Song of Songs is traditionally understood as love poetry between God and Israel. The people of Israel and God are likened to a bride and groom as they enter into the marriage canopy at the start of a long and fulfilling relationship.  “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine,” (Song of Songs 6:3) is often invoked as a couple marries. In Hebrew, the first letters of each of those words spell out the word Elul, the Hebrew month that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah. It appears as if the stage is set for a perfect marriage between God and Israel, what could possibly go wrong? In order for the relationship to work, the love must travel in both directions; each side is required be open to and receptive of the other. The sin of the golden calf is the paradigmatic example of a broken relationship. Entrenched in their desert encampment, the Israelites’ lost faith in both leadership and God results in a significant and serious error, an error that diametrically opposes the love found in Song of Songs, an error that only real tshuva can repair. How are we to undertake such a daunting task?

Our Rabbincal Sages, in their infinite wisdom, provided a comment on the Song of Songs which I have found both explanatory and instructive during these sacred weeks. Responding to the word דפקו (knocked) they write, “My son, open for me one door of tshuva, as small as the head of a needle, and I will open an opening wide enough for wagons and caravans to pass.” In other words, God is knocking upon the doors of our hearts and beseeching us to locate or create at least a small breech through which God may enter. God wants our tshvua, even longs for it, as relayed by the prophet Jeremiah, ‘שובו בנים שובבים נאם-ה (Return! Rebellious children-declares God…Jeremiah 3:14), in a verse that appears frequently in penitential prayers as well as the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. Certainly we would be fools to squander the opportunity to fulfill the rabbinic and prophetic visions.

Yom Kippur is rapidly approaching; the time for immediate and absolute tshuva is drawing to a close as our fates for the year hang in the balance. I have hope. I have hope for the year and for the Jewish People. The realization of that hope is contingent upon the genuine and humble opening of the door, even slightly, to God’s knock. The hope is contingent upon establishment of relationship as loving and open as the imagery of Song of Songs suggests. The hope is contingent upon seizing the opportunity in the season of God’s closeness. The hope is contingent upon serious personal introspection, heeding the words of our prophets, and ultimately arriving at a more complete tshuva.

heeding the words of our prophets, and ultimately arriving at a more complete tshuva.

D’var Torah: Parashat Shmot

3 Jan
Torah inside of the former Glockengasse Synago...

Torah inside of the former Glockengasse Synagogue in Cologne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The parasha this week sees God remember (זכר) the covenant, and take note (פקד), both words appear early in Bereshit, thus it is almost as if this first parasha is a recreation story. Rashi famously asks why the Torah begins with the creation of the world and not at a later point in the Exodus story (Shmot 12:1), to which the answer is given, because of the verse, “He declared to His people on the strength of His works, in order that He might give them the heritage of the nations” (Tehilim 61:6). I would add that similarly Shmot begins where it does in order to set the table for the events preceding the exodus, in addition to draw parallels from the formative parshiyot of Bereshit to the creation of the Israelite Nation, and to establish the deeply rooted relationship between Man and God.

Although not involvingפקד  or זכר, the birth of Moshe in the house of his mother proves to be a seminal event with a significant connection to the creation of the world. Upon his birth, Moshe’s mother notes that her newborn son is כי טוב, good, (Shmot 2:3), a phrase that appears repeatedly with regard to God’s acts of creation in the first chapter of Bereshit. Exodus Rabbah 1:20 quotes Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12a, noting that the birth of Moshe caused the entire dwelling to be filled with light. What is God’s reaction to the light that was born on the first day? כי טוב. Moshe’s birth can therefore be viewed as a parallelism of creation, which leads us directly to Noah.

After destroying the world by way of flood, in a magnificent display of power, God remembers (זכר) Noah and his family who are living aboard the ark (Bereshit 8:1). It is only with the remembering of Noah that God then initiates the gradual recession of the flood waters, paving the way for Noah’s ark to find a resting spot atop a now ubiquitous mountain. Similarly in Shmot 2:24 God hears the suffering of The People, and their crying out which either are a remembrance or cause God to remember (זכר) the covenant that was struck with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. An additional element of the covenant is the Sabbath, which Bnei Yisrael are eventually commanded to זכור. Just as Noah is remembered which results in the repopulation of the Earth, it is through Gods recollection of the covenant that the birth of a nation is set into motion.

God takes note of Sarah in Bereshit 21:1, “God remembered (פקד) Sarah as He had said…” Through use of the verb פקד, it is obvious that a special relationship exists between God and Sarah, with a level of intimacy that was not yet seen in Torah before Sarah. God opens Sarah’s womb, the ultimate act of intimacy, and provides her with a child as previously promised. Using Sarah’s פקד as a model of intimacy with God, we can then better understand the two verses in which it appears in Parashat Shmot. 3:16, “I have surely remembered (פוקד פקדתי) you and what is being done to you in Egypt,” as well as 4:31, “And the people believed, and they heard that the Lord had taken note ((פקד the children of Israel, and they kneeled and prostrated themselves.” From the verses quoted, a relationship has clearly emerged between God and the people, with strong connections to the ancestry that the chapters of Bereshit worked to establish.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we proclaim the sovereignty of God, the Torah reading opens with Bereshit 21:1. It should not be surprising that such a reading was selected, as we are establishing on that day our roots with God. Interestingly, the Torah reading for public fast days also includes the root פקד, when, as part of the conclusion of the Attribute of Mercy, God informs the people that they will be punished for their sins for a thousand generations (Shemot 32:7). While the punishment for violating commandments does indeed seem extremely harsh, it also points in the direction of a significant relationship that exists between God and The People; only when in an intimate relationship whose trust has been shattered could the punishment be so far reaching. On fast days, a time of tshuva, we are encouraged to consider our relationship with God and vice versa, treating the day as a semi-Yom Kippur where we are able to reset and recreate the way we interact with God, emerging hopefully with a more intimate relationship and understanding.

פקד and זכר demonstrate the closeness of God to Bnei Yisrael. Even though I have omitted other examples, the recreation of a relationship whose foundation was laid in the early chapters of Bereshit still manages to rise to the forefront. It is therefore my hope for all of us that just as the relationship between God and Bnei Yisrael is recreated in our parasha this week by Gods remembering and taking note of Bnei Yisrael, so too may we merit to be remembered by God as we seek to create and recreate our own relationships God and each other.

Shabbat shalom.