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Roots of Repentance


Is teshuvah difficult?

Teshuvah, repentance, literally means “to return.” To what are we returning?

What is the nature of the special covenant between God and the Jewish people?

“For this precept that I am commanding you today is not hidden from you, nor is it far away” (Devarim 30:11).

The Ramban explains that the “correct understanding…is that ‘this precept’ is a reference to the…concept of teshuvah, for the verses’You shall take it to heart’ (v. 1) and ‘You shall return to Hashem, your God’ (v. 2) are the precepts that command us to do this…. For this matter is not hidden and far away from you. Rather, it is very close to you, for you to do it at any time and in any place.”

Ramban interprets the Torah’s description of something that is “not hidden from you, nor is it far away from you” as a reference to the mitzvah of teshuvah, repentance. This understanding is puzzling.

After all, can teshuvah really be considered a simple matter? Is it easy for a person to break out of his habits and repent from wrongdoing? Altering one’s habitual behavior is an extraordinarily difficult task. How can the Torah describe teshuvah as easy and close at hand?

There is another question that must be addressed as well. Even if the mitzvah of teshuvah is indeed so easy and readily available, why does the Torah choose to emphasize, specifically with regard to this mitzvah, that it is so easy to fulfill? We do not find a similar statement in the context of any other mitzvah in the Torah.

Let us analyze the verses at the beginning of Parshas Nitzavim (Devarim 29:9-20) that describe how Moshe Rabbeinu ushered Bnei Yisrael into a covenant with God. In those verses, Moshe admonishes them, “Lest there be among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart departs today from Hashem, our God, to go and serve the gods of those nations…. God will not desire to forgive him, for then God’s anger and jealousy will be aroused against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book will come to rest upon him, and God will blot his name out from beneath the heavens.”

This is puzzling in light of the fact that, in the previous parshah, Parshas Ki Savo, the Torah describes at length the severe punishments that will befall the Jewish people if, God forbid, they depart from the way of Hashem and His Torah. What do the verses in Parshas Nitzavim add that was not already previously mentioned in the frightful warnings of Parshas Ki Savo?

The Covenant

We suggest that there is a fundamental difference between the punishments listed in Ki Savo and those described in Nitzavim.In Ki Savo, the Torah sets forth the punishments that are meted out in retribution for sin itself. Nitzavim, on the other hand, introduces a new concept: the obligation to fulfill God’s commandments purely as a function of the covenant between God and Israel. This is indicated in the verse in which Moshe Rabbeinu tells the Jewish people that they had been gathered in order “for you to enter into the covenant of Hashem, your God, and His oath, that Hashem, your God, is establishing with you today.”

The covenant between God and the Jewish people is more than a particularly powerful bond or close relationship. Rather, it represents complete unification, as the Zohar declares, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, and Israel are one” (Zohar, Vayikra p. 73a).

Every Jew’s soul is a piece of the Divine essence, hewn from beneath the Throne of Glory. As a result of this covenant of unification, the Jewish people’s bond with God can never be completely severed.

About the Author: Rav Dovid Hofstedter is the author of the “Dorash Dovid” seforim on the Torah and Moadim. He is also the founder and nasi of Dirshu – a worldwide Torah movement dedicated to accountability in Torah learning among all segments of Klal Yisrael that has impacted more than 100,000 participants since its inception fifteen years ago.


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