Parshat Nitzavim challenges the prevalent understanding of tshuva and its relationship to the redemption process.
“It will be that when all of these things come upon you – the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you – then you will take it to your heart among all the nations where HaShem, your G-D, has dispersed you; and you will return to HaShem, your G-D, and listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul. Then HaShem, your G-D, will bring back your captivity and have mercy upon you, and He will gather you in from all the peoples to which HaShem, your G-D, has scattered you. If your dispersed will be at the ends of heaven, from there HaShem, your G-D, will gather you in and from there He will take you. HaShem, your G-D, will bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed and you shall possess it; He will do good for you and make you more numerous than your forefathers. HaShem, your G-D, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, to love HaShem, your G-D, with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. HaShem, your G-D, will place all these imprecations upon your enemies and those who hate you, who pursued you. You shall return and listen to the voice of HaShem, and perform all His commandments that I command you today. HaShem will make you abundant in all your handiwork – in the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your animals, and the fruit of your land – for good, when HaShem will return to rejoice over you for good, as He rejoiced over your forefathers, when you listen to the voice of HaShem, your G-D, to observe His commandments, and His decrees, that are written in this Book of the Torah, when you shall return to HaShem, your G-D, with all your heart and all your soul.” (D’varim 30:1-10)
A surface level reading of these verses challenges how many Jews see tshuva in relation to Israel’s redemption. In verse 30:2, it appears that the Jewish people return to HaShem. We are then brought back to our land and receive many Divine blessings. But then verse 30:10 states that Israel again returns to HaShem, prompting a question on the expected chronology of events. Is Israel first brought back to our borders or does the nation first return to living in accordance with our Torah?
The Ohr Sameaḥ, Rabbi Meir Simḥa HaKohen of Dvinsk, teaches in the Meshekh Ḥokhmah that these verses in Parshat Nitzavim refer to two types of tshuva. He points out that in verse 30:2 the return to HaShem is written as “v’shavta ad-HaShem” while the later tshuva in verse 30:10 reads “tashuv el-HaShem.”
Ad-HaShem, according to the Ohr Sameaḥ, is not necessarily a return to Torah observance but rather to Jewish national consciousness. It is the children of Israel once again self-identifying as part of a single people after generations of trying to assimilate into the host populations in the lands of our dispersion. We suddenly desire our own country, want to speak our own language and seek to express our own unique cultural identity. This stage of tshuva is essentially the reawakening of our sense of peoplehood and a feeling of solidarity with fellow Jews throughout the world.
El-HaShem, the later return, is a renewed embrace of the Torah and its commandments in both our private lives and in the collective national life of the Jewish people. The Ohr Sameaḥ teaches that once we return to a healthy Jewish national consciousness, we will certainly return to observing the statutes of our Torah.
Returning to a sense of peoplehood and collective responsibility is the first stage of a process leading to tshuva on a level far greater than any individual’s personal return could ever reach. More than merely fostering personal piety among Jews, tshuva that begins with a reawakening of Hebrew identity will lead Israel to express kedusha in every sphere of societal life. The early stages of returning to national consciousness are part of a Divinely guided historical process that even those participating in are often unaware.
The great kabalist Rabbi Yehuda Ḥai Alkalai (in Kitvei HaRav Alkalai) supports the Ohr Sameaḥ’s view regarding the two types of tshuva, defining them as national and individual. Rabbi Alkalai illuminates further that national tshuva is Israel returning to our native land. The redemption, he explains, does not occur all at once but rather takes place in stages – stages in which the Jewish people must actively participate.
Israel coming back to a feeling of peoplehood – after bitter centuries of dispersion and separation – is a response to the magnet of the Divine Will for Creation. The redemption process begins with the emergence of healthy and natural feelings of Jewish national consciousness similar to similar feelings found amongst gentiles.
In Sha’ar 100 of the Akeidat Yitzḥak, Rabbi Yitzḥak Arama points out that the process of redemption takes place with the tshuva of returning to national consciousness, followed by HaShem bringing Israel back to our borders. Only following this ingathering of the exiles comes the later tshuva of Israel returning to Torah and experiencing full redemption.
Rabbi Zvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook concurs with this view and adds that the redemption is in and of itself tshuva, as it is the Jewish people returning to the completeness of what Am Yisrael is naturally meant to be. He points out that the redemption comes “slowly, slowly” (Jerusalem Talmud, Brakhot 1:1) and further demonstrates, based on several Biblical verses, that ad-HaShem is a collective subconscious tshuva of returning to peoplehood in our homeland whereas the tshuva of el-HaShem stems from a conscious understanding that Israel fully expressing ourselves as the national manifestation of HaShem’s Ideal for Creation necessitates a certain vision, mindset and organization of society.
While the tshuva of ad-HaShem generally has no conscious destination, the tshuva of el-HaShem carries with it a deep awareness of the Divine Source to which Israel is returning.
The concept of el-HaShem occurring after the ingathering of the Jewish people to our land is expressed throughout Scripture (Yoel 2:12, Amos 4:6, Eikha 3:40-41), with Yishaya 44:22 stating “return to Me for I have redeemed you” – implying that Israel returns to Torah after being redeemed. And one of the clearest examples of this process can be found in chapter 36 of the Book of Yeḥezkel.
“I will take you from among the nations and gather you in from all the lands, and I will bring you to your own soil. Then I will sprinkle pure water upon you, that you may become cleansed; I will cleanse you from all your contamination and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and I will make it so that you will follow My decrees and My ordinances and fulfill them. You will dwell in the land that I gave to your forefathers; you will be a people to Me, and I will be a G-D to you.” (Yeḥezkel 36:24-28)
At the core of Jewish national aspirations burns a drive to bring humanity to the knowledge of HaShem as the timeless ultimate Reality without end that creates all, sustains all, empowers all and loves all. Despite its flaws, the Zionist movement emerged as the external practical expression of Israel’s ancient spiritual yearnings that for generations lay dormant within our people’s collective soul.
Jewish national consciousness has come back alive in modern times to initiate a movement of universal tshuva that will drive world history toward its ultimate future goal. Through the vehicle of Malkhut Yisrael, mankind will be brought to the awareness of HaShem as the all loving infinite Whole in which we all exist – an awareness that will usher in an era of total goodness, global harmony and universal fulfillment. This is the true inner essence of Israel’s national aspirations.