Nitzavim: On possibility of repentance and return


Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

Isaiah 61:10-63:9

All around the world Jews like us are moving through the month of Elul. Rosh Hashanah is coming, and time is short. There are guests lists and shopping lists to prepare, so that we will be ready for sacred Yom Tov meals.

More importantly, this is the time to be examining our lives, in order to allow the holidays to do their work in us. This is the time for the work of tshuvah : repentance, re-orienting our lives and returning to ourselves and to God.

This is the time that each of us in our own way, yet not alone, reviews the year gone by. What blessings has the year brought us? What are we proud of? In what ways have we erred, gone off the track, even sinned? To whom do we need to apologize, acknowledge hurts and make amends? Without these tshuvah conversations, without this inner preparation, our High Holy Day prayers become empty words of ritual theater, without real power to cleanse and transform us, without the possibility to give us a new chance in the coming year.

Not surprisingly, the Torah reading for this special Shabbat of anticipation, just before the New Year, brings us a primer of tshuvah : a guidebook in turning our lives around and in returning to God.

Joseph Albo, the author of the Sefer Ha'Ikkarim/Book of Principles (quoted in Nehama Leibowitz's "Studies in Devarim"), regards all of Chapter 30 of Deuteronomy as a single literary unit, an essay on the possibilities of tshuvah in our lives. Listen to his way of reading this beautiful text, and see if you can hear the passage guiding us in the tshuvah-work that we need to do in these precious days.

In the first section of this chapter, we find a beautiful essay on the subject of returning to God. In finest biblical style, key words are repeated in different forms in a single passage, like similar sounds echoing through an orchestra to call our attention to the central melody. In the space of 10 verses, forms of the word "tshuvah" appear no less than seven times. "When all these things befall you…and you return them to your heart… and you return to God…then God will turn your captivity and take you back in love…God will bring you back…God will return and gather you…then you will return to hearing God's voice…And God will again rejoice over you…if you turn to God with all your heart and all your soul" (Deut. 30:1-10).

Again and again, we are asked to imagine what returning to God might mean for us this year: an apology, a re-ordering of priorities, new commitments, a solid pledge not to repeat hurtful behavior. Again and again, the text hypnotically repeats its chant: Turn and return, with all your heart and all your soul.

Then comes a word of encouragement. "This mitzvah is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens…nor beyond the sea…no, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it" (Deut. 30:11-14). The text whispers to us reassuringly: You can do this, you know what to do.

This work is not only for the pious, for poets or mystics or distant religious people. This is for you: You can make your life better in the year to come — the task is as close as your heart.

Finally, the text calls on us to choose life. "I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — in order that you and your children may live, loving God, hearing God's voice and staying close to the Divine, for this is your life" (Deut. 30:19-20).

Is this stunning text really about tshuvah ? Yes, writes Albo: "The text maintains it is only reasonable that we should not neglect the opportunity [of repentance], which is a matter of life and death for us."

It is a matter of life and death for us. Will we examine our lives this holiday season, embrace the blessings we have been given, and use our strength to make our lives better? Will we say a sincere "no" to the many ways in which life inevitably drags us away from what is most true and most important? Will we make a choice to use our time well, in our relationships, in our work, in our community life, in our connection with the Divine?

May these holy days inspire us to choose life in the fullest way we can. And may it be a year of blessing and goodness for all. Amen.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at