by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah
Moses reminds the Israelites at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”), that everyone standing on the bank of the Jordan River made a covenant with God. They will take over the land of Canaan, with God’s help, but eventually they will forsake the covenant, and God will drive them out again
When all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I placed before you, vahasheivta to your heart among all the nations where God, your god, has driven you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:1)
vahasheivta (וַהֲשֵׁבתָ) = then you will return, revert, recall. (Vahasheivta is a form of the verb shuv (שׁוּב) = return, turn around, turn back, restore.)
Why does Moses make such a long-term prediction? Most modern scholars date this section of Deuteronomy to the Babylonian exile, circa 598-520 B.C.E. At that time, Jews had already experienced two exiles from their land. Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) in 740 B.C.E. and deported many Samarians to distant parts of the Assyrian Empire. Then Babylonia conquered both Assyria and the southern kingdom of Israel (Judah), and conducted its own deportations from 605 to 588 B.C.E.
Thus “all these things” includes multiple conquests and deportations of Jews. Jews living (and writing) during the Babylonian exile assumed that their all-powerful god had arranged the curses of subjugation and exile because too many Jews had abandoned their religion. Their own people’s misbehavior had triggered a a divine centrifugal force pulling them away from their center.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses predicts that after 150 years of deportations and exile, a centripetal force would pull them back in to the land of Israel and the presence of God.
Moses lays out five steps to a complete return. In these steps, the people and God take turns moving toward a reunion.
1) The first step, “vahasheivta to your heart among all the nations where God, your god, has driven you,” is returning to your own heart (the seat of consciousness in Biblical Hebrew) while you still live in a foreign land. In the next verse Moses explains:
Veshavta ad God, your god; and you will listen to [God’s] voice, you and your children, just as I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 30:2)
Veshavta (וְשַׁבְתָּ) = And you will return (also a form of shuv).
ad (עַד) = up to, as far as.
The people must reject the gods of the nations where they are living, and cultivate awareness of their own God by listening for the divine voice and paying full attention to it. They must go as far toward God as they can under the circumstances of their exile.
2) Moses predicts that after they have turned their hearts back to God, God will take the second step and return the people to their former land.
God, your god, veshav your fortune and have compassion on you, veshav and gather you from among all the peoples where God, your god, has scattered you. Even if you strayed to the end of the heavens, from there God, your god, will gather you, and from there [God] will take you back. And God, your god, will bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed, and you will possess it, and [God] will do you good and make you more numerous than your forefathers. (Deuteronomy 30:3-5)
veshav (וְשָׁב) = will then restore, will then return (also a form of shuv).
3) Once God has returned them to the land of Israel, the third step is for the Jews to love God. Loving God is not easy, in this week’s Torah portion; God will have to help humans to do it.
And God, your god, will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your descendants, to love God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you will live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)
“So that you will live” means “so that you will thrive”—perhaps materially, or perhaps spiritually.
4) The fourth step, Moses says, is up to the people:
And you, tashuv, and you will listen to the voice of God, and you will do all [God’s] commandments that I commanded you today. (Deuteronomy 30:8)
tashuv (תָשׁוּב) = you will return (also a form of the root verb shuv).
Once God returns the exiled Jews to their land, Moses predicts, they will become able to obey all God’s rules, as well as listening to God’s voice. Presumably, the people could have obeyed God’s ethical rules and family laws wherever they lived. But in order to obey the agricultural laws, and in order to conduct religious worship through the system of sacrifices at the altar, they had to live in and around Jerusalem.
5) The fifth step of return is up to God again:
And God, your god, will add to all the deeds of your hand: in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your soil, for good, because God yashuv to rejoice over you for good as [God] rejoiced over your forefathers—because you will listen to the voice of God, your god, to observe [God’s] commandments and decrees, the ones written in the book of this teaching—because tashuv to God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 30:9)
yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he/it will return.
Just as in the first step of return the exiled Jews, called “you”, will bring their hearts back to God, in the final step God will bring Its heart back to the people. The result of God’s rejoicing over the people will be abundant life for the humans, their animals, and their crops.
After this fifth step, both the Jews and God would have made a complete return to one another, in both attitude and practical action. It sounds like the complete restoration of a marriage after the couple has been estranged and separated.
What if “you” in this week’s Torah portion meant anyone seeking a return from exile, a return to the center, a centripetal path? The center you return to need not be a particular spot on the globe; it could be a spiritual place.
In the annual cycle of Torah readings, the portion Nitzavim falls either one or two weeks before Yom Kippur, the day Jews dedicate to repentance, forgiveness, teshuvah, and atonement.
teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה) = reply, return. (Yes, it also comes from the root shuv.)
In the Torah and in the time of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, the method used to atone and reach teshuvah with God involved animal sacrifices and sprinkling blood in the Holy of Holies. (See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.) For the last two millennia, the teshuvah of Jews on Yom Kippur has been a matter of prayer, fasting, inner examination, and listening for God with all our heart and all our soul.
Although Yom Kippur is the official day of teshuvah for Jews, anyone might return, any day, to the inner divine spark—and open the way for the divine spark to return to us.
May all people who seek forgiveness, atonement, and reunion find a centripetal path to the holy center.
I wish all of my Jewish readers Shanah Tovah—a good new year—beginning this Sunday evening. I will be on my own centripetal path from Rosh Hashanah (the beginning of the year) through Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, the night when Jews gather to roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read the opening of the book of Genesis/Bereishit. After Simchat Torah (October 5 in 2105) I will dive into the book of Genesis again myself, even as my husband and I move to a new town. How could I resist writing another post on the beginning of creation?