Parashat Nitzavim - The Ladder of Repentance
מרן רה"י הרב שבתי סבתו | כז אלול התשעט | 27.09.2019
The Ladder of Repentance
From Commitment to Solidarity
The Torah portion of Nitzavim describes, precisely and in great detail, the process of Teshuvah - repentance - that the Nation of Israel will undergo in the end of days.
The process includes four distinct stages, beginning with the initial awakening to the lowliness of their spiritual state, and ending with a full internalization of the path of Torah and mitzvot. Parashat Nitzavim lists the four stages of Teshuvah, where each one includes a mention of the stages preceding it. As follows:
- Awakening. The Torah states in Nitzavim:
וְהָיָה כִי יָבֹאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ,
וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ, בְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הִדִּיחֲךָ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה.
When all these things come to pass upon you,
the blessing and the curse that I have placed before you,
you shall take them to heart
[when you are] amid all the nations to which G-d has driven you.
There will come a time when the People of Israel will suddenly wake up to their sorry state of affairs and everything that has befallen them throughout their centuries of exile among the nations. All the excuses and cover-ups, which led the nation to consistently ignore signs and warnings, will come to an end; they will make way for a time-out, for an awakening, for another look at their situation in its entirety.
There will thus come a time when the recognition will slowly make its way into Israel's consciousness that their presence among the Gentiles is abnormal. A state of affairs in which the Nation of Israel lives outside the Holy Land, whether amid great wealth and comfort or in poverty and squalor, is simply not natural. To be driven away from their natural home of Eretz Yisrael is rather a Divine punishment. The realization of this reality takes place in this stage of awakening and seeking.
- The second stage is Attentiveness. Parashat Nitzavim continues:
וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם
אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ.
And you will return to Hashem and hearken to His voice,
to everything that I command you today,
you and your children, with all your heart and soul.
This stage of listening, following the initial awakening, comes when Israel is ready to hear and follow Hashem's word. This attentiveness also includes listening to the words of the Prophets and the true Torah Sages, whose lives are wholly dedicated to teaching Israel the Torah and its precepts.
This readiness to listen and accept found expression in the famous responseנעשה ונשמע, We will do and we will listen, which Israel said when they received the Torah at Mount Sinai: "First we will follow the commands, and we will ask questions later." It means that despite the difficulty in following the commandments, "our hearts are open and ready to receive just as the earth is ready for planting."
When the Torah states And you will return to Hashem (above), this is the Biblical source for the following famous prophecy:
שׁוּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ כִּי כָשַׁלְתָּ בַּעֲוֹנֶךָ.
And you will return to Hashem and hearken to His voice,
and you will perform all His commandments
that I command you this day. (verse 8)
Regarding this verse, our Sages taught:
- Levi said: Teshuvah is great in that it reaches the Throne of Glory. (Yoma 86a)
This means to say that even if the injury caused by the sin reaches the Throne of Glory – that is, outright denial of G-d – still, even there, Teshuvah can work.
- The third stage is Execution, the actual carrying out of the Commandments:
וְאַתָּה תָשׁוּב וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקוֹל ה' וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם.
And you will return to Hashem and will hearken to His voice,
and you will perform all His commandments
that I command you this day.
This stage, after the Nation wakes up and is able to hear, involves the practical execution of G-d's mitzvot, precisely as He instructs us. This does not yet imply a total identification with and internalization of every detail, but rather a form of blind obedience.
- The fourth and final stage is Internalization, i.e., complete identification with the mission. The above passage concludes by stating when these blessings will come true:
כִּי תִשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ,
לִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו הַכְּתוּבָה בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה
כִּי תָשׁוּב אֶל ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ.
If you shall listen to the voice of Hashem your G-d,
to keep His commandments and statutes written in this book of Torah,
and if you return to Hashem your G-d
with all your heart and all your soul.
After the stages of listening and precise execution comes the stage of total identification with the Torah's precepts and all their details, with all your heart and all your soul. This stage is dependent on study and comprehension of the Torah, and connection with its principles and mitzvot.
The Divine Responses
Each of the above rungs in Israel's ladder of Teshuvah was granted an appropriate Divine response.
In response to the stage of awakening (D'varim 30,1), Hashem "aroused" the attribute of Divine mercy:
וְשָׁב ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֶת שְׁבוּתְךָ וְרִחֲמֶךָ...
G-d will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you…
That is, the arousal of the trait of compassion follows our recognition that Israel is G-d's handiwork – and it is only natural for a father to have compassion for his son.
When we reach the next stage, that of attentiveness (verse 2), G-d will gather our exiles and enable us to inherit the Land once again:
... וְשָׁב וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה.
He will once again gather you from all the nations,
where Hashem had dispersed you. (verse 3)
וֶהֱבִיאֲךָ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יָרְשׁוּ אֲבֹתֶיךָ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ ...
Hashem your G-d will bring you to the Land that your forefathers inherited,
and you [too] will possess it… (verse 5)
As opposed to the above two stages, the next Divine responses precede Israel's fulfillment of the next stages - as in, "Even before they call, I will respond" (Isaiah 65,24). Even before they actually execute the mitzvot, in the third stage (verse 8), G-d's aid appears in the form of "circumcising the heart" of the apathy that envelopes it. Hashem will remove the external factors that block the emergence of our inner desire to serve G-d and fulfill His mitzvot:
וּמָל ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ לְאַהֲבָה אֶת ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ ...
And Hashem will circumcise your heart and that of your descendants,
to love Hashem your G-d… (verse 6)
Though it does not appear so at first glance, the next verse explains how G-d will "circumcise your heart:"
וְנָתַן ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֵת כָּל הָאָלוֹת הָאֵלֶּה עַל אֹיְבֶיךָ וְעַל שֹׂנְאֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר רְדָפוּךָ.
Hashem your G-d will place all these curses upon your enemies and
those who hate you and pursued you. (verse 7)
That is, Hashem does not intervene directly in our Free Choice, but rather acts indirectly, by creating conditions and circumstances that are likely to lead us to strive to serve Him. In this case, a direct hit on our enemies by Hashem will arouse us to love Him – and then to fulfill the third stage, that of carrying out in practice His mitzvot.
And when the fourth rung of the Ladder of Teshuvah is about to arrive – that of total identification with Hashem's ways (verse 10) – the climax of G-d's response appears:
וְהוֹתִירְךָ ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶךָ
בִּפְרִי בִטְנְךָ וּבִפְרִי בְהֶמְתְּךָ וּבִפְרִי אַדְמָתְךָ לְטֹבָה
כִּי יָשׁוּב ה' לָשׂוּשׂ עָלֶיךָ לְטוֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׂשׂ עַל אֲבֹתֶיךָ.
Hashem will give you good abundance in everything you do -
in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock,
and in the fruit of your soil,
when G-d will once again rejoice over you for good,
as He rejoiced over your forefathers. (verse 9)
This will be Heavenly joy and endless blessing for Israel – but on condition:
כִּי תִשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ... כִּי תָשׁוּב אֶל ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ.
That you obey Hashem your G-d…
[and that] you return to Hashem your G-d,
with all your heart and soul. (verse 10)
Bible, Mishna, Talmud
Since all is dependent on the study of the Torah, as stated above, let us see how the four stages of Teshuvah - Awakening, Attentiveness, Execution, Identification - are reflected in the various disciplines of Torah learning.
The first stage begins even before we start studying - for before one begins to learn Torah, he must improve his midot, his character traits. Humility, derekh eretz (courtesy and respect), and how one honors G-d and people - these are the basic building blocks of the Torah. As the Sages stated:
דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה, Derekh eretz preceded Torah. (Medrash Vayikra Rabba 9,3)
This stage parallels the stage of awakening and realization.
From here, we proceed to the actual study of Torah, which is divided into three parts:
- a) Bible, the Written Torah
- b) Mishna, the Oral Torah
- c) Talmud (Gemara), involving analysis, debate and reflection
The first is parallel to the stage of listening, the second to that of execution, and the last - to internalization. Let us look at each in detail.
- Studying the Written Torah is like listening to the Torah as if receiving it with Prophetic inspiration. This is a form of absolute listening to G-d's Word without human intervention, and a willingness to hear G-d's will from a position of total humility.
- The Mishna is detailed Jewish Law, for the purpose of knowing what and how to execute and fulfill it. When we learn Mishna, we are learning Halakhah, or how to bring down G-d's word into the every-day reality, with all its precise details.
- Talmud: When we study Gemara, we analyze, consider and review the laws of the Mishna from every side and angle. We ask and answer, we delve into the sources, we compare ideas and contrast concepts with each other, until we arrive at a clear and deep understanding, total identification and internalization with the Law.
We thus see how the study of Torah brings us to the four stages: Awakening, Listening, Execution, and Internalization.
The Extra Day
Let us now see these four stages at the Stand at Mount Sinai, when Israel received the Torah. G-d commands Moshe to prepare the nation for this once-in-history occasion:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל משֶׁה, לֵךְ אֶל הָעָם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּם הַיּוֹם וּמָחָר וְכִבְּסוּ שִׂמְלֹתָם.
וְהָיוּ נְכֹנִים לַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי...
Hashem said to Moshe: Go to the nation and sanctify them
today and tomorrow, and they will launder their clothes
and they should be ready on the third day…
G-d's command was for two days of preparation. Why, then, did Moshe add an extra day of preparation, as the Torah tells us five verses later?
וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל הָעָם הֱיוּ נְכֹנִים לִשְׁלשֶׁת יָמִים...
He said to the nation: Keep yourselves in readiness for three days…
The Gemara (Shabbat 88a) explains that Moshe Rabbeinu did this on his own initiative. How did G-d react to this? He gave His consent to Moshe's order, and only began the Giving of the Torah after three full days of preparation had passed.
This of course raises some important questions: How can have Moshe added a day on his own that Hashem did not ask for? Does he have permission to do so? And why did he do it?
To understand this, let us learn what Hashem demanded of Israel when He gave them the Torah, and what He promised them in return. The Torah tells us:
אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם,
וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי.
You saw what I did to Egypt,
and I carried you on the wings of eagles, and I brought you to Me.
This was merely the background for what comes next:
וְעַתָּה: אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי...
And now: If you adhere to My voice, and preserve My covenant
We see that Hashem has two expectations of us: One is to listen to His voice, and the other is to fulfill His commandments. We thus see the first three of the four stages that we have been learning about:
- Background material; awakening to the situation – no preparation required.
- Listening, attentiveness to what G-d wants – Day One of the preparation.
- Execution, carrying out of G-d's will – Day Two of the preparation.
But the fourth stage, of total solidarity and identification with the mission, is still missing.
It could be said that the "execution" stage includes the "identification" stage - but Moshe Rabbeinu didn't look at it that way. He requested an extra day of preparation for Israel, because he wanted one full day to be dedicated solely to achieving total solidarity with the Torah's precepts.
Where did Moshe get the idea that these two stages - execution and total identification - should be separate from each other? The answer is: From the obligations that Hashem took upon Himself towards Israel! Let us explain.
The above verses describe what Hashem wants of us - to listen to My voice and preserve My covenant - and the Torah then tells us what He will give us in return:
...וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים...
וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ...
You will be My treasured people...
and you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Three promises for Israel are listed here. Israel is to be:
- Hashem's treasured nation
- A kingdom of priests
- A holy nation
Israel seems to be getting a very profitable deal! Hashem only asked of them two things - to listen and to perform the commandments - but promised them three!
Moshe Rabbineu realized that it could not be as easy as it looked. He understood that the first two promises from Hashem paralleled the two demands upon Israel, but that if they wanted the third promise as well - to be a holy nation unto G-d - they would have to go one step further: They would have to totally identify with their Divine mission. He therefore asked them to prepare for one extra day.
Why is the "identification" stage so critical in order to be a holy nation? The explanation is as follows:
To be a "holy nation" means to be separate and apart from all the other nations, and dedicated solely to Hashem. In order to reach this level, Israel must study and attain a deep and true understanding of the Torah's precepts; only this will enable them to have total solidarity with their Divine mission.
As we have explained, this total identification is much more than simply adhering to and carrying out the commandments, no matter how precisely. If the heart and soul are missing, the fourth stage cannot be reached. In order to involve the heart and soul in this all-encompassing mission, another day of preparation before the Stand at Mount Sinai is required - and this is why Moshe told them to prepare for an extra day, beyond the two that G-d required.
This entire process is summed up by Moshe himself, as we read in Parashat Ki Tavo. Moshe reminds the People of Israel of the commitments they have taken upon themselves:
אֶת ה' הֶאֱמַרְתָּ הַיּוֹם
לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵא-לֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו
וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְוֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ.
You have glorified G-d today
- for Him to be your G-d, and to walk in His ways
- and to keep His statutes, commandments and judgements
- and to hearken to His voice.
The order in this case is reversed: The first stage, listening, is listed last, and is preceded by the second stage of performing the mitzvot - and both are preceded by something else: to walk in His ways - that is, total identification with G-d's path and precepts. If we follow this recipe, Moshe says, we will become a unique and holy people unto G-d.
The four steps of which we have learned appear very often in the Torah. Let us conclude by identifying them in the passage of Tzitzit that we recite every morning and evening in Kriat Shma. The passage states:
...וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹת ה' וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם...
You shall see them [the tzitzit on your four-cornered garments]
and you shall remember all of G-d's commands
and you shall perform them.
This verse tell us the two stages of listening [remember all of G-d's commands] and execution [you shall perform them]. The next verse repeats these, but adds something else as well:
לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹתָי וִהְיִיתֶם קְדשִׁים לֵא-לֹהֵיכֶם.
So that you shall remember
and perform all My commandments
and be holy unto your G-d.
Listening/remembering and executing/performing are mentioned again – but with the addition of the third stage, namely, being holy unto G-d, which is the final stage of Teshuvah: total solidarity with the Divine cause.
The last stage is to be holy and unique for Hashem - a stage that is attained, as we said, by understanding and internalizing; solidarity and joy; enthusiasm and total identification with all our heart and soul in the performance of the Torah's precepts.
This, then, is the tree of Teshuvah that we must climb – and water and nourish it each and every day.