By Reb David
As we approach the High Holy Days and the end and re-start of the annual Torah cycle, we encounter in this week’s Torah portion (Netzavim) pivotal words that we will revisit on Yom Kippur afternoon. Almost predictably, these words are about the teshuvah (spiritual return) that is the focus of these days of meaning.
The transcendent context reminds of the mythic moment that “we” stood together at Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Netzavim teaches that “we” includes everyone. All of us received the Covenant of holy living – “both those who stand here with us this day before YHVH our God and those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29:13-14). We’re all in it together – all of us, unchangeably, forever.
But why, and so what? Answers depend on how we read the words that follow.
One understanding is about consequences. Netzavim offers that if we live in integrity with rules of holy living, we experience blessing; and if not, curses – words we can understand as Torah’s ancient code for consequence. If we live in integrity and behave well, then God will “delight” that we keep the teachings: that’s how we “return to YHVH [our] God with all [our] heart and soul” (Deut. 30:9-10). In this understanding, first we live in integrity with mitzvot (connecting commands), and then that’s how we “return” (do teshuvah).
Another understanding, however, is the opposite. If we start rather than end the answer with those words about returning “heart and soul,” here’s how Netzavim reads (Deut. 30:9-14):
Once you return to YHVH your God with all your heart and soul, surely this Instruction I enjoin on you today isn’t too baffling for you or beyond reach. It’s not in heaven that you should say, “Who among us can go up to heaven and get it for us and impart it to us, so we can observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, so we can observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, so you can observe it.
These are core words of the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading. In their view, if first we return to holiness in heart and soul, then we can more easily live in integrity with Torah’s mitzvot (connecting commands). If first we do teshuvah, then holy living is already in our mouth and heart. And note Torah’s strange grammar: holy living isn’t in our mouths and hearts (plural), but in our mouth and heart (singular). Spiritually speaking, together we all share one mouth and one heart. We all share one soul. We’re all in it together.
So which is it? Which comes first: intention or action? physical act or spiritual return? Wisely, Netzavim suggests all of the above, depending on which way we read. In one reading, holy intention drives holy behavior; in another reading, holy behavior drives holy intention. Sometimes we learn from the outside in (first do, then learn), and sometimes we learn from the inside out (first learn, then do). Sometimes we act and become individually, and sometimes we act and become in community. Sometimes we journey alone, and sometimes we plug into the collective heart and soul that defines us as a people, a civilization and a human race.
Maybe that’s why Netzavim underscores that we’re all in it together. Teshuvah is not a solitary process: spiritual return takes individual commitment and effort, but also takes community, collective reminders, collective prayer and collective action – in Torah’s words, one mouth and one heart. The Covenant is with everyone to remind that we’re all in it together, that we all belong to a holy legacy, that the teshuvah with greatest potential to transform requires everyone.
All together now. Shanah tovah.