Deuteronomy The Reciprocity of Repentance
Parshat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Nitzavim, focuses our attention on the religious imperative of repentance, and is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah in anticipation of and preparation for the Days of Awe. One verse in particular points to a counterintuitive idea about the process of teshuvah (return and repentance) that is worth unpacking.
The latter part of Deuteronomy 30:9 states that “For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as he did that of your ancestors.” The word translated as “again” in Hebrew is yashuv, the same word in a slightly different form used in the very next verse in reference to repentance: “…when you return, tashuv, to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” Similarly, through the use of homiletical license, it is possible to translate the phrase in verse 9 as “The Lord will return, delighting in your well-being…”
This interpretation suggests that the repetition in these consecutive verses reflects a certain reciprocity in the process of repentance. God first promises that God will return with joy to us, as an invitation and prelude to our returning to God “with all of our heart and soul.” It is as if God makes the first move, approaching us and opening a path to a renewed relationship. In response to the divine overture, we humans can feel confident that God desires to forgive us, as part of establishing a new foundation for our ongoing relationship.
It is interesting to note that another word found in the same verse is also repeated as part of the description of repentance. Indeed this word, la-sus, to delight, appears in only two verses in the entire Torah, a few chapters apart in the book of Deuteronomy (chapters 28, in last week’s Torah reading, and chapter 30 this week). In both verses, the word refers to God’s delight in relationship to the Jewish people. We generally think about God’s forgiveness as a function of mercy, but God’s rapprochement with us may also be a source of great joy and delight, so to speak, for the Divine.
The notion of a dual and reciprocal focus on the human and the Divine also finds expression in the custom of blowing the shofar, the ram’s horn, each morning in the month prior to Rosh Hashanah. Two verses are often cited as the basis for this custom. One, taken from the book of the prophet Amos, understands the blast of the shofar as generating fear and trembling in anticipation of Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, one of the names for Rosh Hashanah. “Shall the horn (shofar) be blown in a city, and the people not tremble?” (Amos 3:6) In this verse, the shofar sound during this period before the High Holidays is directed toward the people in an attempt to awaken them from the spiritual lethargy that often characterizes everyday life.
Another verse used as a source for this custom comes from Psalms 47:6. “God ascends midst acclamation, the Lord, to the blasts of the horn (shofar).” Here, the focus is on enhancing God’s glory and power through joyous song and praise of Divine sovereignty. The sound of the shofar serves to elevate God in relationship to humanity, while at the same time it directs our attention inward as we engage in a process of introspection and return. The shofar blasts move in two directions simultaneously, and serves to unite the human and the Divine in reaching out to both through its primordial sound.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in addition to the very profound trepidation, vulnerability, and self-examination they seek to generate, also contain vital elements of joy as we reconnect to the Source of Life and move with hope into the new year. That joy emerges from an experience of reciprocity in the Divine-human relationship, as individuals as well as in communities, joyously building a stronger and more intimate partnership that strengthens us and enables us to work toward building a more perfect world.
Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann is the president of Hebrew College, where he also serves as professor of pluralism and Jewish education.