Parashat Hashavua – The Weekly Portion – Nitzvaim/Vayelech

JCT student Tzvi Silver on this week’s parasha.


Tzvi Silver, a student in his third year of studies towards a degree in Electronics Engineering at JCT’s Lev Campus, on this week’s parasha

After presenting the intense bracha and klala of last week’s sedra, of the threat of eternal exile if we stray from the mitzvot, Moshe Rabeinu speaks of the final teshuvathat will end the exile:

 וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד-ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ, וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ,

And you shall return unto Hashem your G-d, and you shall listen to His voice (דברים ל:ב)

Next, Moshe tells Am Yisrael of the result of their teshuva, the ingathering of the exiles that will signal the geulah:

 וֶהֱבִיאֲךָ ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר-יָרְשׁוּ אֲבֹתֶיךָ–וִירִשְׁתָּהּ; וְהֵיטִבְךָ וְהִרְבְּךָ, מֵאֲבֹתֶיךָ.

And Hashem your G-d will bring you into the land that your forefathers inherited and you will inherit it, and He will be good to you and multiply you above your forefathers(שם ה)

After further explaining the greatness of this time of redemption, we, the readers, are left wondering what could possibly come next. Instead of describing אחרית הימים, or עולם הבא, or a logical next step to this narrative, we are instead presented with a very upbeat and encouraging description:

  כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם–לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ, וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא.

For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, nor is it far off. (שם יא)

What is this very doable and even more important mitzva? Neither you nor I can easily know, as the pesukim do not explicitly elaborate on what is going on here. This leaves us wondering; what exactly is this mitzva we are being commanded today?

The commentators attempt to untangle this by filling in the blanks in this vague four-passuk section. Most of the commentators, headed by Rashi, explain that thismitzva is the commandment to learn Torah. Learning Torah can be very daunting, especially when one is coming from a weak background, and it can often seem unreachable. But, as the following pesukim read, “it is not in the heaven… it is not beyond the sea,” rather, “it is close to you, in your mouth and your heart to do it.”

The commandment to learn Torah could very well fit the bill for this ambiguousmitzva– studying it can ensure that we do not sin and return to the exile that the previous pesukim described our leaving. However, when I initially read these fourpesukim, I thought of something completely different. Later research showed me that it could be a correct interpretation, based on a minority of the commentators. Whether it is or isn’t this mystery mitzva, there is an important lesson to be learned from my idea. Allow me to elaborate…

On דברים ל:יא, one commentator stands out with a different interpretation of “המצוה הזאת.” Rav Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno answers that the mitzva is none other than the all-important commandment to do תשובה. You may ask; most of the first half of דברים ל discussed תשובה- why is brought here as a different, difficult commandment. Sforno answers:

כי המצוה הזאת. והטעם שאמרתי והשבות אל לבבך בכל הגוים שצריך שהתשובה תהיה בעודך בגלות למען תושע הוא כי אמנם זאת המצוה של תשובה אשר אנכי מצוך היום …

For this commandment. And the reason that it was [already] written “and you shall return to your heart”… because this teshuva must be done while still in the exile, in order to merit that He (G-d) will save you, and this is the commandment of teshuvathat “I command you today”… (ספורנו שם)

Sforno writes that this commandment of teshuva is not your run of the mill variety of repentance, for the pesukim already spoke of this spiritual atonement and return previously. Now, these pesukim are speaking about a “special” kind of teshuva, an active type which must be done in the exile in order to merit returning to Eretz Yisrael. To my knowledge, there is only one such kind of teshuva– yearning to return to Eretz Yisrael, living our lives with the desire to come home, and, ultimately, making the difficult journey to complete our teshuva.

Close your eyes and imagine a world where a Jewish national teshuva campaign succeeded, and led to an opportunity for our people to return home for the first time in millennia. Imagine that the Land of Israel was wide open, waiting for her exiles to return, and she had blessed with riches and wealth. This is an amazing opportunity, but also a very scary one. Returning home would require a long trip, leaving everything familiar behind, and starting life all over again, which is quite the daunting task. In light of this fearful decision, the natural step after the “opening” of kibbutz galiyot outlined at the beginning of דברים ל’, Moshe gives encouraging words to the future Jews who will be preparing to do this difficult teshuva. “This mitzva is not too hard, and not too far off. It is not in the heavens, nor is it beyond the sea. It is close to you, and it can be done.”

Now open your eyes. We are the generation of Jews faced with this challenge. In the last sixty six years, our homeland has been given back to us and has been blessed in ways that our forebears Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and Moshe could only have dreamed of seeing in their respective times. The process of קיבוץ גליות is well under way, and most of world Jewry have relocated home. But, now it is about you, the individual facing the challenge of undertaking a difficult teshuva that our grandparents could only have dreamed of being able to do. The path going forward is not easy, it may not be “in the heavens,” and it is truly “beyond the sea” (no pun intended). But, this cannot stop us from embracing our national destiny.

(In case we need any more proof that this message is directed to us, it is interesting to note that the gematria of שמעבר לימה is 697, approximately equal to אמריקה שלי- an especially relevant proof for those gematria/Torah codes buffs)

In the seventeenth perek of Orot HaTeshuva, Rav Kook writes about this exact type of teshuva. He speaks of the importance of the tikun of returning home as a priority on both a national and personal level, as the Torah very clearly commands us “ושבת עד ה’ אלקיך” and “כי תשוב אל ה’ אלקיך.” My rebbe, Rav Menachem Akerman interprets this double wording as both a promise and a commandment; You will merit to return to Eretz Yisrael, only if you fulfill the mitzva of teshuva and work hard to make the move home. In our days, aliyah has become a national priority, but it cannot fully succeed and teshuva cannot be fully completed until each and every one of us makes it a personal priority as well.

We now find ourselves less than a week from יום הדין, the Judgment Day. In two weeks, our fates for the next year will be sealed. This is the time for תשובה, especially the “special” type encouraged by Moshe in דברים ל. We must enter 5775 with this teshuva as a personal priority. Otherwise, how can we ever hope to merit to be sealed in ספר החיים if we continue to avoid ארץ החיים?! In this time of תושבה, we cannot ignore Hoshea’s call of “שובה ישראל עד ה’ אלקיך.”

With Hashem’s help, may we all be sealed in the Book of Life in the merit of ourteshuva, heeding Moshe Rabeinu’s call to return home to Eretz Yisrael.