Turn your eyes to Rosh Hashanah


This week’s parashah, Nitzavim-Vayelekh, pushes to the forefront the call to repentance as our eyes turn towards Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps we hesitate, deliberately restraining ourselves. We check our moral compass. Many individuals are drawn back into the Jewish community as we approach the High Holidays. Others hold back, fearing some excruciating self-examination; they wish they could be spared the journey and hope to escape lightly. For they fear they might bruise too easily. Is this a wrong thing to feel? Many of us agree as to our allegiance to Judaism, but rarely follow its laws. We all prize our independence and possess an unpredictable streak. As we are propelled forward in this life, we try to leapfrog our circumstances. Some of us favor the romance of the route and scarcely know where one is being led. Judaism becomes the home we cannot return to or choose to forget. And thus the turning point in our lives becomes the vanishing point and ultimately, the point of no return. But such a disappearing act is ordinarily inconceivable. We are emotionally torn and always leave something of ourselves behind on the path of life.

God is always one step ahead of us. Still, when we are so far removed from Judaism, God can appear distant. We alternate in fits and starts on the road to repentance. But when we come to that fork in the road, it is not all uphill. Our efforts are not incurable folly. God provides us with a clear sense of what to do in the parting words of Nitzavim:

I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live (Deut. 30: 19) Standing at the foot of Sinai, the Israelites are reminded that they live in a world of their own making. They can choose to exist outside the covenant or inside the covenant. God commands, but do the Israelites notice? The Israelites clearly didn’t always obey. Ultimately the key to ending exile rested in their own hands.

Taking his cues from the parashah, the imminent Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria argued that God, “puts before us both truths: first, that people have been made with the knowledge of both good and evil, its opposite; second, that it is their duty to choose the better rather than the worse.” (The Unchangeableness of God: 50)

The Israelites frequently tussled with “good” and “evil” and despite their failings still managed to move on to the Promised Land. Life is a balancing act. David, in the Second Book of Samuel (14:17) was actually complemented on his knowledge of everything good and bad. There are many detours, but Teshuvah is no dead end. The Hebrew root, shuv, meaning to return or repent, appears several times in the sedra to remind us that the world rests on our shoulders. We are self-reliant, but not alone. Even when we stray from the beaten path with such heavy baggage, God will take us “back in love.” (Deut. 30:3)

Rabbi Severine Haziza-Sokol of Congregation Kol Am prepared this week’s Torah portion.