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Shabbat Nitzavim Vayelech 5778

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Teshuva, to God

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5774

When the Sfas Emes was young, he once came late to a shiur given by his grandfather, the Chiddushei HaRim. After the shiur, the Chiddushei HaRim lectured him on the importance of coming on time and the Sfas Emes accepted his tochachah (rebuke). A friend of the Sfas Emes witnessed the tochachah and asked him: Why didn’t you tell your grandfather that you up very late learning last night and you dozed off? Surely that’s a legitimate excuse to come late!. The Sfas Emes answered that while his lateness was justified, he couldn’t pass on the opportunity to receive tochachah from the great Chiddushei HaRim.

That is a story from a bygone era. We don’t like being told that we are wrong. We don’t react well to it and we certainly don’t look forward to it.

Our Teshuva model must be a little different.

The Gemara in the end of Megillah (31b) writes that we read the rebuke section in the book of Leviticus on the Shabbat before Shavuot and the Rebuke section in the book of Deuteronomy on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.

Why? כדי שתכלה השנה וקללותיה – so that the year and its curses will end, and we can begin anew with the New Year looking ahead to blessing and prosperity. The Gemara deals with the question of Shavuos being the end of the year which we will leave for now.

It is a very nice idea. Out with the old, new beginnings, fresh starts etc.

Except that it is not what we do. The rebuke section in Devarim is found in Ki Tavo which we read quietly last week. According to the Gemara we should have read Ki Tavo this Shabbat, the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. Yes it is coming.

Tosafot explain that out custom is to distance each rebuke section by a week to create a buffer between the curses and the New Year. We want the curses removed at least a tad from the New Year.

This sounds like an emotional argument or a mystical one – it just doesn’t feel right to have curses so close to the new year. Neither argument appealed to me all that much.

I found what I was looking for in the Maharsha, the commentary to the Talmud of R. Samuel Eliezer ben R. Judah HaLevi Edels – the Maharsha – was born in Cracow in 1555.

He writes that it wasn’t that we simply wanted to move the curses and Ki Tavo away from Rosh Hashanah, rather we wanted to move it so that we could insert Nitzavim in between the two. In his language:  The curses of Ki Tavo which came true during the second temple period will be reversed and the redemption will come about via the Teshuva, the repentance that is described in Parshat Nitzavim.

In other words – this isn’t a feel bad or good thing; the custom to read Nitzavim is instructive. It is a charge for us to repent and return to God. We read Nitzvaim before Rosh Hashanah because it contains that Mitzvah of Teshuva!

Reformulated to 2014 I would argue that we don’t respond all that well to the rebuke of Ki Tavo and thus we move it slightly from Rosh Hashanah and place the Teshuva of Nitzvaim there in its place.

I want to share with you two thoughts from the pesukim that describe Teshuva in our parsha.

In chapter 30 verses 2&3 we read:

ב) וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד־יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם אַתָּ֣ה וּבָנֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ

ג) וְשָׁ֨ב יְקֹוָ֧ק אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־שְׁבוּתְךָ֖ וְרִחֲמֶ֑ךָ וְשָׁ֗ב וְקִבֶּצְךָ֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר הֱפִֽיצְךָ֛ יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה

2. And shall return to the Lord your God, and shall obey his voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul;

  1. That then the Lord your God will turn your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the nations, where the Lord your God has scattered you.

Rabbi Meir Leibush, 19th century Romania, the Malbim notes that the word וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ is not conditional. It implies, he writes, both a mitzvah that we must repent and a promise that we will!

That certainly is comforting.

How do we get there?

וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ – And you will listen to his voice. HaKetav Vehakabalah, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (19th century Germany and Prussia) notes that it does not mention performing the mitzvoth, simply listening to the voice.

What voice is that?

The Netziv writes that it is the voice of Talmudic discourse as the Halacha is debated and hashed out. That is exactly what you would expect from the Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhyn, but not enticing for too many.

The Malbim writes that there is a voice that is telling you to keep the mitzvoth, to do what God wants. Many of you know that voice, not as a voice but as a gut feeling that you know what is right and know what to do. You simply have trouble getting there – getting to blessings and daily prayer and kosher in and out of the house.

That is the voice where is begins. That is the beginning of the repentance process.

Since we don’t like other people telling us that we are wrong, listen to that voice, YOUR voice, as Rosh Hashanah approaches and allow it to serve as a redemptive guide for the coming year.