Often, though, we are confused. We are not sure how to change, not sure how to come closer to God. We are not sure how to return.
In the final chapters of Devarim, Moshe warns the people of the implications of abandoning the word of God: The Land of Israel has a delicate constitution, and misconduct will lead to exile. It might seem a logical consequence of this sort of exile that the covenant between God and the Jewish People would be completely void, the relationship permanently severed, but this is not the case. The Torah goes on to speak of the process of rekindling the relationship and returning to the Land. Read in context, these verses describe more than a mere relocation; they describe a national renaissance, an ingathering of the exiled Jews from the furthest places of their dispersion, and a healing of the relationship between God and His nation.
The yearly cycle of Torah reading moves along in a seemingly self-contained orbit, independent of the Jewish calendar of holidays. Nonetheless, our custom is to assure that as the year comes to an end, the full cycle of Torah readings will be completed on the Simchat Torah festival. This overlap between the system of weekly readings and the calendric cycle of festivals thus dictates that the main theme of the Torah reading for the Rosh Hashanah season is return and renaissance.
National “return” is a positive upheaval that has been the subject of Jewish hope and longing for millennia, and the seasonal focus on teshuva, a personal return, may be seen as a more personal application of this larger concept. As the High Holidays approach, something within every Jew reverberates with thoughts of return, and the verses in this parashah that speak of return to God on a national level are channeled and co-opted into the liturgy of individual return –teshuva.
Teshuva, in its most basic sense, means return - to God, to a purer version of ourselves, and to the peoplehood of which we are capable. We bless one another with a sweet year, full of happiness and health, but on a deeper level we pray that we ourselves, and all of us together, are deserving of these blessings. On the core level we truly want to improve. We want to be more spiritual, to be more true to our souls and ourselves. We want to feel closer to God. Often, though, we are confused. We are not sure how to change, not sure how to come closer to God. We are not sure how to return.
Musar, a branch of Jewish ethical teaching, concerns itself with moral self-improvement and actualization of the inner decency that is often deeply suppressed within our conscious. One of the great masters of musar of the last century, Rabbi Yosef “Yoizel” Hurwitz (1847–1919), better known as “the Alter (elder) of Novardok,” approached the problem of confusion on the path to teshuva with a parable. If we update this parable slightly for the modern reader, the parable is quite powerful:
There are two major cities in Israel; one is the official, eternal capital of the Jewish People and the State of Israel, Jerusalem. The other is a bustling modern metropolis called Tel Aviv. Many holy Jews live in each of these two cities, but Jerusalem is not like any other place; it is sui generis, unique. Jerusalem is The Holy City. A third city, Modi’in, lies midway between the two.
A man boards a train in Modi’in, anticipating the climb up the hills and mountains to the holy city of Jerusalem, his intended destination. He knows what he is looking for; he knows what holiness is, and he is filled with anticipation. A few minutes after the train gets underway, he realizes that he is headed in the wrong direction: He has accidentally boarded the Tel Aviv-bound train. His best course of action would be to disembark at the next stop, and board the Jerusalem-bound train. But our confused traveler finds this too hard, too painful. Switching trains would be an embarrassing admission that he has been traveling in the wrong direction. How many of us can admit to the mistakes we have made? So, in a decision that might easily have been suggested by the elders of Chelm, he instead decides to take a rearward-facing seat, one that will allow him to face the ever-receding Jerusalem rather than the rapidly-approaching Tel Aviv. With every passing minute, he travels further and further away from his intended destination, as he deludes himself into believing that he is indeed traveling to Jerusalem, to his rendezvous with holiness.
This is how some people treat Rosh Hashanah: Rather than changing trains, they change seats on the same train. They may face the place of holiness they seek, they may convince themselves that they are headed in the right direction, but they are, nonetheless, traveling away from where they need to go. Without admitting their mistakes, without actually changing direction altogether, the holiness and spirituality they seek continues to slip further and further out of reach.
On Rosh Hashanah (in particular) we must return – to our selves. We must return to God. Sometimes that means realizing that we are traveling in the wrong direction. Sometimes that means switching trains. Let us never be satisfied with a comfortable seat on a train heading nowhere. This is the time of year to board the right train – the train that takes us home.
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