Parashat Nitzavim 5781 – Rosh HaShanah 5782
The process of Teshuvah is the Torah version of depth psychology, encouraging us to probe the conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious dimensions of our minds to understand the motives for our behavior, and through this understanding to come to terms with our mistakes, make amends with others and realign our behavior with HaShem’s Will. As an essentially internal process, it shouldn’t be subject to external seasons, yet Maimonides, based on a passage in the Gemara Rosh HaShanah (18), says:
רמב”ם הלכות תשובה פרק ב הלכה ו
אף על פי שהתשובה והצעקה יפה לעולם, בעשרה הימים שבין ראש השנה ויום הכפורים היא יפה ביותר ומתקבלת היא מיד שנאמר דרשו ה’ בהמצאו, במה דברים אמורים ביחיד אבל צבור כל זמן שעושים תשובה וצועקין בלב שלם הם נענין שנאמר כה’ אלהינו בכל קראנו אליו.
Even though Teshuvah and crying-out are always good, during the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur it is especially good and accepted immediately, as it says “seek HaShem when He is to be found, call Him when He is near (Is. 55:6).”
Maimonides is trying to account for the traditional conception of the time from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur as a special season dedicated to divine judgment that calls for human repentance. But this leads him into a theological thicket. He had said in “Laws of the Foundation of the Torah,” that
since it is clear that [God] is not a body, it follows clearly that there do not occur to Him any of those occurrences of the body… He does not exist in time, such that He would have a beginning or an end or number of years, and He does not change and there is nothing that can cause Him to change… (1:11).
Holding that God is not subject to change, it’s a challenge to explain literally the traditional Talmudic and midrashic notion that God judges the world between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The midrash and the machzor present elaborate, vivid descriptions of this divine judgment, modelled on ancient royal court etiquette. Maimonides’ general resolution of the issue is to maintain that all statements about God implying change in time or space found
in the Torah and the words of the prophets, all are parables and figurative expressions… For behold, He says ‘I am HaShem, I do not change (Malachi 3:6),’ and if He were sometimes angry and sometimes happy He would be changing (1:12).”
The Gemara Rosh HaShanah records the opinions of Rabbi Yossi, that in fact God judges the world every day, and Rabbi Natan, that God judges the world every moment (16a), but Maimonides doesn’t go their route. He quotes the verse from Yeshayahu, “seek HaShem when He is found, call Him when He is near (55:6),” without further comment. Can there a special season when unchanging God can be found, a special time when He is near? He leaves us perplexed.
Rabbi Menachem Recanati, the great kabbalist of Italy, suggests an approach to the concept of a season of Teshuvah that avoids the theological difficulty (Torah Commentary, Gen. 22:14):
דע כי שערי תשובה פתוחין מראש השנה עד יום הכפורים, כמה דאת אמר [ירמיה לא, ב] ואהבת עולם אהבתיך על כן משכתיך חסד, בסבת אהבת אברהם אבינו ע”ה נמשך חסדו לבניו. ועל אותם הימים כתיב [ישעיה נה, ו] דרשו יי’ בהמצאו קראוהו בהיותו קרוב, קרוב ודאי, שאלמלא שהשערים הללו פתוחין רחוק היה הדרך מאד
Know that the Gates of Teshuvah are open from Rosh HaShanah until Yom Kippur, as is said “with eternal love I love you, therefore I have drawn you close in kindness (Jer. 31:2),” by reason of the love of Avraham our Patriarch, peace be upon him, He granted kindness to his children. Regarding those days it is written “seek HaShem when He can be found, call Him when He is close,” actually close, for were these gates not open, the path would be very far indeed.
Rabbi Recanati indicates that the psychological impediments to sincere Teshuvah are very difficult to overcome. The demands of total honesty with God, total honesty with those we have offended or injured, and total honesty with ourselves, and the tendency to be deflected by ulterior motives, make authentic Teshuvah a grueling process for which it’s difficult to set aside the necessary time and marshal the necessary emotional energy.
This week’s parashah confirms his point. Moshe Rabbenu prophetically describes the painful events that will occur to Israel in the course of our complex history, and predicts:
דברים פרק ל
וְהָיָה֩ כִֽי־יָבֹ֨אוּ עָלֶ֜יךָ כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הַבְּרָכָה֙ וְהַקְּלָלָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֖תִּי לְפָנֶ֑יךָ וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ֙ אֶל־לְבָבֶ֔ךָ בְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֧ר הִדִּיחֲךָ֛ יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱ-לֹקיךָ שָֽׁמָּה:
וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד־יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱ-לֹקיךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם אַתָּ֣ה וּבָנֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־ נַפְשֶֽׁךָ
And it will be, when all these things shall come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I have laid out before you, you will return to your heart in the midst of all the nations to which HaShem your God has banished you. And you will return to HaShem your God and listen to His voice, according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul.
Teshuvah is indeed a grueling process, and our national history and our personal experience confirm that it often takes painful life experience to really face it and engage in it fully.
Based on a midrashic motif, Rabbi Recanati suggests that the designation of a special season in which the Gates of Teshuvah are open and the process is facilitated is a favor granted to Avraham by virtue of his total submission to God in the Akedah, that is said to have occurred on Yom Kippur. But what are these gates?
Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh translates the metaphor of gates of Teshuvah and their connection to Avraham, with reference to Psalm 24 that is traditionally recited on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur at the end of the evening services. The Psalm contains these verses:
תהלים פרק כד
(ז) שְׂא֤וּ שְׁעָרִ֨ים׀ רָֽאשֵׁיכֶ֗ם וְֽ֭הִנָּשְׂאוּ פִּתְחֵ֣י עוֹלָ֑ם וְ֝יָב֗וֹא מֶ֣לֶךְ הַכָּבֽוֹד:
(ט) שְׂא֤וּ שְׁעָרִ֨ים׀ רָֽאשֵׁיכֶ֗ם וּ֭שְׂאוּ פִּתְחֵ֣י עוֹלָ֑ם וְ֝יָבֹא מֶ֣לֶךְ הַכָּבֽוֹד:
Gates, lift up your heads, let the eternal openings be lifted, and the King of Glory shall come.
Gates, lift up your heads, lift up the eternal opening, and the King of Glory shall come.
Rabbi Alsheikh explains the image of opening gates:
(ז) שאו שערים ראשיכם כו’. ..ובאיכות רוחניות העליון שורה שכינה למטה. ושאף גם לא יהיה רק על ידי נשמות הצדיקים שבישראל כי היכל ה’ המה ונשמותיהם הם פתחים לבוא דרך השתלשלותן שפע טוב העליון מאתו יתברך,
“Gates, lift up your heads…” By virtue of the quality of supernal spirituality the divine Presence dwells below. And this is only by virtue of the souls of the righteous of Israel, for they are the temple of HaShem and their souls are the openings by which comes, through the concatenation of emanation, the positive supernal efflux from Him, blessed be He.
Rabbi Alsheikh explains that the gates are a metaphor for the righteous human soul, open to God. And through our gates can flow the “supernal efflux,” the continual flow of divine blessing and renewal. This means that if, as Maimonides says, God is constant, that does not mean God is static. Rather, God the Infinite bestows constant creative change and growth and blessing upon His worlds. The gateways are “eternal openings.”
From Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur the Gates of Teshuvah are open, so to speak, in that we take the opportunity during this time to open our minds and our hearts in this demanding process with the necessary focus, to open our hearts to the real divine flow of blessing and renewal that is always available.
So it’s true that from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur we have the opportunity to “seek HaShem when He is to be found, call Him when He is near (Is. 55:6).” It is our own commitment during this season that helps us realize that God is already close, the eternal gates are always, already open, renewal is always at hand. As it says, quite realistically, at the end of this week’s parashah, speaking of the great mitzvah of Teshuvah:
דברים פרק ל
(יא) כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹ֥א רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא:
(יב) לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה:
(יג) וְלֹֽא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲבָר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה:
(יד) כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ: ס
For this mitzvah that I command you this day, it is not remote from you, nor is it distant. It is not in Heaven, to say “who will ascend to Heaven for us and bring it to us and we will hear it and do it.” And it is not across the sea, to say “who will pass across the sea and bring it to us and we will hear it and do it.” For the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it (Dt. 30:11-14).
In this season of Teshuvah may we all open the gates of our hearts to reveal HaShem’s loving Presence, closer to us that we are to ourselves, to renew our souls, reinvigorate our relationships, reinvigorate our communities and help heal our struggling world, to bring a New Year of peace, health and love to all humanity.