The Torah portion of Nitzavim is always read before Rosh Hashanah, a fitting time to speak about reflection and repentance. Often we have a strong desire to make changes in our lives. We may want to be better parents, better spouses, and better people. We aspire to greater spirituality in our lives, to devote more time to Torah study, to be more thoughtful in our interpersonal relationships. And yet, circumstances may make such resolutions very difficult to keep. Our goals may seem unattainable, and our personality faults beyond correction.
The Torah describes the national teshuvah (repentence) of the Jewish people as they return to their homeland and their faith:
“Among the nations where the Lord your God has banished you, you will reflect on the situation. Then you will return up to the Lord your God.... He will gather you from among the nations... and bring you to the land that your ancestors possessed.
God will remove the barriers from your hearts... and you will repent and obey God, keeping all of His commandments.... For you will return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” (Deut. 30:1-10)
Twice, the verse states that “you will return to God.” Is there a purpose to this repetition? A careful reading reveals a slight discrepancy between the two phrases.
After reflection in the exile, the Jewish people will return to the land of their fathers. Here the text says, ‘וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד הֹ — “you will return up to God,” using the Hebrew word ‘עד’ ('ad').
After returning to the Land of Israel and God removes the barriers of their hearts, they will learn to fully love God and keep His commandments. This time the Torah says, כִּי תָשׁוּב אֶל ה — “you will return to God,” using the preposition ‘אל’ ('el').
How are these two types of national return different? What is the difference between 'ad' and 'el'?
The first teshuvah is the physical return to their homeland, to their language, and to their national essence. This is returning “up to God” — approaching, but not fully attaining. Thus the Torah uses the preposition 'ad,' indicating a state of “up to, but not included in the category” (a Talmudic expression, ‘עד ולא עד בכלל'). This is a genuine yet incomplete repentance, obscured by many veils.
After this initial return, the Jewish people will merit Divine assistance that “will remove the barriers from your hearts.” This will enable the people to achieve the second stage of return, a full, complete teshuvah, all the way “to God.” This is an all-embracing return to God “with all your heart and soul.”
It is important to recognize and appreciate these different levels of teshuvah. This lesson is also true on a personal level. We should value even partial efforts to change and improve. The Sages praised even hirhurei teshuvah, the mere desire to improve (Pesikta Rabbati 44). Perhaps we are unable to fulfill our spiritual ambitions to the extent we like. Nonetheless, we should view our desire to change and improve as tools that purify and sanctify, leading us on our way to attaining complete spiritual elevation.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 339-341. Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I p. 335; Orot HaTeshuvah 17:2)
Illustration image: ‘The ship Exodus is moored to the wharf’ (colorized photo from Palmach Photo Gallery, 18 July 1947)