“This Sea­son's Leit­mo­tif: Re­turn!”

The Jewish Voice - - PARSHA - By: Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Wein­reb

We have all been brought up to be­lieve in the im­por­tance of progress. For the past sev­eral cen­turies, the goal of phi­los­o­phy, re­li­gion, cul­ture, and cer­tainly science has been to de­velop ideas and prac­tices which ad­vance hu­mankind be­yond its present state.

Poets have ac­claimed the su­pe­ri­or­ity of progress; one of them, Robert Brown­ing, put it this way:

"Progress, man's dis­tinc­tive mark alone,

Not God's, and not the beasts': God is, they are; Man partly is, and wholly hopes to be." Brown­ing is cer­tainly not the only per­son who en­thu­si­as­ti­cally en­dorsed progress to the point of see­ing it as the hall­mark of hu­man­ity, and as that which sets him apart from and above the an­i­mal world, and even dis­tin­guishes him from the Almighty Him­self.

So force­ful has been the em­pha­sis upon progress that any at­tempt to re­turn to past ideas and meth­ods is al­most uni­ver­sally crit­i­cized as back­ward and prim­i­tive, and, at the very least, old-fash­ioned. The antonym for progress, regress, is a word with strong neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions. No one wants to be seen as a re­gres­sive.

At this time of the year, just be­fore Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the theme of progress is def­i­nitely in the air. We all hope to progress to a bet­ter year, to a year of growth and de­vel­op­ment. In­deed, many syn­a­gogues con­clude the old year and be­gin a new one with the re­frain, "May this year and its curses be gone, and may a new year with its bless­ings be­gin!"

No one seems to wish that the com­ing year be one of sta­tus quo. Cer­tainly, very few hope for a re­turn to the past.

And yet, it is pre­cisely "re­turn" that our To­rah pro­mul­gates, es­pe­cially at this time of year.

This week's To­rah por­tion, Par­shat Nitza­vim, con­tains the fol­low­ing pas­sage (Deuteron­omy 30:1-10). I pro­vide a lit­eral trans­la­tion of some of the verbs, in ac­cor­dance with their He­brew root:

"When all these things be­fall you—the bless­ing and the curse…And you take them to heart [lit­er­ally, and you re­turn them to your heart]...And you will re­turn to the Lord your God, and you and your chil­dren will heed His com­mand...Then the Lord your God will re­turn your cap­tiv­ity...He will re­turn you from all the na­tions...You will re­turn and again heed the voice of Lord...For the Lord will re­turn to de­light in your well-be­ing...Once you re­turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul."

In the space of just sev­eral verses, the word "re­turn" ap­pears, in one form or an­other, at least seven times! It was in the writ­ings of the great Nechama Lei­bowitz that I first learned the im­por­tance of a word that ap­pears rep­e­ti­tiously in the course of a sin­gle text. We are to think, she wrote, of such a term as a leitvort, a lead­ing word, a word which gives us a clue and leads us to the deeper mean­ing of the text at hand.

Even my lim­ited fa­mil­iar­ity with the Ger­man lan­guage was suf­fi­cient for me to draw the com­par­i­son be­tween leitvort, a word that iden­ti­fies the theme of an en­tire pas­sage, and the word leit­mo­tif, which is a thought or melody that per­vades a lit­er­ary work or a mu­si­cal com­po­si­tion.

The ten days that be­gin on Rosh Hashanah and con­clude on Yom Kip­pur are known as the Aseret Ye­mei Teshu­vah, which is usu­ally trans­lated as The Ten Days of Re­pen­tance. But teshu­vah does not re­ally mean re­pen­tance, and it cer­tainly does not mean pen­i­tence, as it is fre­quently ren­dered. Rather, it means re­turn.

The leit­mo­tif of this en­tire sea­son is the To­rah's call for us to en­gage in pro­found in­tro­spec­tion and to re­turn to a place which we have lost, for­got­ten, or aban­doned. It is not progress that is de­manded of us dur­ing the next sev­eral weeks; it is, oddly enough, regress.

It can le­git­i­mately be asked, re­turn to what? I would like to pro­vide an an­swer or two to that ques­tion, in­spired by the book that I find so per­son­ally mean­ing­ful at this time of year. It is The Lights of Teshu­vah, by Rabbi Abra­ham Isaac Kook.

Rav Kook em­pha­sizes that over the course of time, we each de­velop as in­di­vid­u­als, and in that process iso­late and alien­ate our­selves from oth­ers, from our fam­i­lies, from the peo­ple of Is­rael. To re­turn means to re­turn from our self-cen­tered­ness to the col­lec­tive, from the prat, or sin­gle unit, to the klal, or all-en­com­pass­ing group. There can be no teshu­vah un­less the per­son re­con­nects with larger com­po­nents of so­ci­ety. We all, in our heart of hearts, know the ways in which he has cut him­self off from sig­nif­i­cant peo­ple in his life, and each of us knows how to re­con­nect to those in­di­vid­u­als.

My ex­pe­ri­ence as a psy­chother­a­pist has taught me that there is an­other des­ti­na­tion to which it would pay for us to re­turn. I speak of our child­hood. As we ma­ture and de­velop in life, we grow in many pos­i­tive di­rec­tions. But we also move away from our in­no­cence, from our child­ish en­thu­si­asm, from the hope and sense of po­ten­tial that char­ac­ter­izes the young, but which older in­di­vid­u­als es­chew cyn­i­cally.

Peo­ple find it very re­ward­ing to, if only in their imag­i­na­tions, re­turn to their youth and re­cap­ture

some of the pos­i­tive qual­i­ties that they left be­hind as they made their adult choices.

Fi­nally, we all need to re­turn the Almighty, to His To­rah, and to His Land.

No mat­ter how in­tense our wor­ship of Him dur­ing the past year was, we can re­turn to Him for an even stronger con­nec­tion.

No mat­ter how stu­diously we ex­plored His To­rah, we can re­turn to even deeper lev­els of its im­pen­e­tra­ble depth.

No mat­ter how loyal our faith­ful­ness to the land of Is­rael was, we can re­turn to even greater loy­alty and more coura­geous faith.

And no mat­ter what our re­la­tion­ship was with oth­ers in our lives, we can draw upon our own in­ner sources of gen­eros­ity and com­pas­sion and en­hance those re­la­tion­ships in a spirit of gen­uine teshu­vah, of re­turn­ing to those oth­ers, and, in the process, to our truer selves.

Rabbi Wein­reb's newly re­leased Per­son in the Parasha: Dis­cov­er­ing the Hu­man Ele­ment In the Weekly To­rah Por­tion, co-pub­lished by OU Press and Mag­gid Books, con­tains a com­pi­la­tion of Rabbi Wein­reb's weekly Per­son in the Par­sha col­umn. For more in­for­ma­tion about his book, go to https:// www.ou.org/ou­press/prod­uct/ the-per­son-in-the-parasha/.

Rabbi Wein­reb writes that he is: “in­spired by the book that I find so per­son­ally mean­ing­ful at this time of year. It is The Lights of Teshu­vah, by Rabbi Abra­ham Isaac Kook.”

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