Facing the future with teshuvah


Lisa Mandel

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh


I was 6 years old when Harry Chapin’s song “Cat’s in the Cradle” debuted. It resurfaced in my life during my high school youth group years. Remember sitting around a campfire during Havdalah? The song session afterward always included this iconic hit.

I had not given the song much thought until my then 16-year-old announced that it was on his playlist. (Thank you, Sirius ’70’s hits!) Fast forward driving home from the East Coast and taking our son to college: I found myself metaphorically sitting in a song!

This week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, begins, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God …” Chapter 30, Verse 6 continues: “Then the Eternal your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul that you may live.” 

The portion concludes by telling us we have a choice: life or death, blessing or curse.

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This portion encompassed the mirage of feelings as we had set out to move my only child into his dorm room. I thought about the Israelites standing on the precipice of a promised land. The barrage of emotions coursed over me, and I am sure him, like the waves at high tide. He was looking forward. In his view was an array of endless possibilities. He was more than excited. He was in “the greatest city” in our nation. 

My view was different. I was like Moses, looking backward. Eighteen years played through my mind in a continual loop. As the car advanced eastward, I reflected upon the moments I could have been a better parent. It was not pretty. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, I spoke. I shared with my son that I could not see past the mistakes I had made or words spoken in carelessness. 

Without missing a breath, he told me he had forgiven me the moment it happened. My heart was full of a lightness I so desperately needed. The remainder of the drive, move-in and goodbyes were flawless. No tears. He had granted me the forgiveness I needed. And I granted him what he needed: the ability to separate in an emotionally healthy manner.

The Hasidic master R. Shalom Noah Berezovsky (1911-2000), “maintained that while many of us genuinely want to repent, most of us lack the courage required to go deep inside our inner worlds and repair what is broken. … We thus prefer to tinker rather than transform.” 

My soul was transformed as I sought and was granted forgiveness. I was blessed with a wholeness, a genuine feeling of peace. It took courage to ask and courage to grant. We chose life.

This Torah portion, and Judaism in general, introduces us to the importance of a future. Our children are our future. As individuals, we can never think only of ourselves. We are about others and community. And without teshuvah, repentance and forgiveness, we cannot exist. My son gave me the greatest gift. I know his Jewish education, both formal and informal, taught him this lesson. This portion is also read on Yom Kippur morning, a time when our hearts are prepared for teshuvah, and our souls crave it. 

We must look to the future for hope even as we actively address teshuvah. In Chapter 30, the root of the verb “to return” is utilized seven times. Seven is a number of creation and wholeness. Each time we seek repentance and forgiveness, we are creating anew. 

In Exodus 33, Moses asked God to behold the Eternal’s Presence. God had Moses station himself in the cleft of a rock as God passed before him. God shielded Moses until God passed by him. Moses could only see his back. Like Moses, I am now facing forward, watching my son embrace his future.

Elizabeth Hersh is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.