Shabbat Shuva / Parshat Ha’azinu / Yom Kippur

Rabbi Bernie Fox

Communal and Individual Repentance

For the commandment that I have commanded you today is not too difficult for you.  Neither is it too distant from you.  (Devarim 30:11)

And you will return to Hashem your G-d and you will listen to His voice according to all that I have commanded you today – you and your children with all your heart and all your soul.  (Devarim 30:2)

One of the 613 commandments is the mitzvah of repentance – teshuvah.  Teshuvah requires an evaluation of one’s behaviors and attitudes.  This evaluation is followed by a decision to change.  Teshuvah is a very personal experience and an individual effort.  The Yamim Noraim – the High Holidays – center upon the theme of teshuvah.  Therefore, it is interesting that so much of the activity of the Yamim Noraim takes place in a community or congregation.  We spend long hours in synagogue.  Virtually all of our prayers are formulated as expressions of the thoughts of the community and many of the prayers we recite can only be recited in this public forum.  Even our confessions, supplications, and prayers for forgiveness take place in this communal setting.  These are days that require personal introspection.  Why is so much of our time spent in a public setting?  The two passages quoted above provide an important insight into the mitzvah of teshuva.  This insight will provide one response to our question.

In the first passage, Moshe admonishes the people regarding observance of a commandment.  Moshe assures the people that they can perform this commandment.  It is not too difficult or too complicated.  They have the ability.  To which commandment does Moshe refer?  The commentaries offer various responses to this question.  Nachmanides suggests an answer based upon the context of the pasuk.  He explains that Moshe is referring to the mitzvah of teshuvah.  Moshe is assuring us that we have the ability to renew ourselves.  We can change.  Nachmanides contends that this passage is the source in the Torah for the mitzvah to teshuvah.

The second pasuk quoted above is from the same chapter of the Torah.  In this passage also, Moshe discusses teshuvah.  In the passages preceding this pasuk, Moshe predicts that the people will sin.  They will be expelled from the Land of Israel and forced into exile.  In our pasuk, he assures Bnai Yisrael that they will ultimately repent.  Once the nation repents, Hashem will redeem His nation from exile.  Nachmanides contends that this second passage is also the source of the mitzvah of teshuvah. 

This raises a question.  Every mitzvah is derived from a single passage in the Torah.  Other passages may amplify and add detail.  However, the basic command is derived from a single pasuk.  In Nachmanides’ comments he seems to ignore this principle. He identifies two separate passages as the source for the mitzvah of teshuvah.  

Rav Ahron Soloveitchik Zt”l suggests an answer to this question.  This answer involves two simple steps.  First, Rav Soloveitchik suggests that the citing of two sources suggests that there are two different commandments dealing with teshuvah.  In other words, each passage is the source for a one of the two mitzvot of teshuvah. 

Second, Rav Soloveitchik defines these two separate mitzvot.  He explains that the first passage is directed to the individual.  This mitzvah of teshuvah instructs the individual to repent.  The second passage addresses the nation.  It communicates another mitzvah of teshuvah.  This second mitzvah is placed upon the community.  We are required to repent as a congregation.  In short, according to Nachmanides, there are two mitzvot of teshuvah.  One is a commandment upon the individual to repent.  The second command admonishes the community to perform teshuvah. 

This raises a new question.  How are these two mitzvot different?  Why are both needed?  Why are the community and the individual commanded to perform teshuvah by two separate mitzvot?

Perhaps, the answer lies in again considering the context of these passages.  This second passage appears in the context of a prophecy.  The people will sin.  They will be exiled.  They will repent – as a community – and they will be redeemed.  The mitzvah of communal repentance is presented in the context of national redemption.  Teshuvah is described as the method for restoring Bnai Yisrael.  This context reflects on the nature of the mitzvah.  The context explains the basis for the communal imperative to repent.  We must repent in order to restore Bnai Yisrael.  We cannot be redeemed from exile without returning to Hashem.

The Torah is telling us that we have a mission and destiny as Bnai Yisrael.  We are responsible for the fulfillment of this mission and destiny.  We must be redeemed.  We are responsible for our own redemption through the performance of teshuvah.

The Comparison of Torah to Rain

My lesson shall drop like rain, my saying shall flow down like dew -- like a downpour on the herbs, like a shower on the grass.  (Devarim 32:2)

In our pasuk, Moshe compares the Torah to rain.  Just as the downpour and the shower cause the earth's vegetation to grow, the Torah provides spiritual sustenance to its students.  There is an important message in this comparison.  Clearly, the pasuk tells us that Torah leads to growth.  However, rain fosters growth in a unique manner.  A comparison will illustrate the special role of water.

Imagine a person building a stone wall.  The wall is constructed by laying out a row of stones.  A second row is placed on top of the first.  This process continues until the wall reaches the planned height.  Each individual stone adds its own mass to the wall.  The finished wall is no more than a combination of the original stones.

Let us contrast this with the effect of water upon vegetation.  Water nourishes plants.  It provides the plants with essential nutrients.  It allows the plant to utilize other nutrients drawn from the soil, air, and sunlight.  The plant combines these various elements to create something new.  The fresh leave growing from the stalk of the plant is not just a row of raindrops.  The rain enables the plant to utilize its own creative ability to fashion a new product.

The stones and the rain are both used as ingredients in fashioning something new.  However, the stones are merely combined into a structure.  The rain unleashes the creative properties within the plant.  

We can now appreciate the comparison of Torah to rain.  The pasuk teaches us a very important lesson regarding Torah pedagogy.  We are urged to carefully consider our objectives in transmitting Torah to our students.  We should not treat Torah as a pile of stones.  Our students are not a wall.  In other words, we cannot settle for imparting to our students rote facts.  This produces a student that is merely a collection of information.  This is not adequate!

Instead, we must treat Torah as rain.  The Torah should nourish our students.  It should encourage the students’ creativity.  We want our students to contemplate the Torah they learn.  They should apply their abilities to understanding the depth of the Torah's wisdom and appreciating its beauty.  If we succeed, our students will grow into wonderful individuals.  Each student's uniqueness will be nurtured by the Torah.

   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 30:11.

   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 30:2.

    Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, Sefer Perach Mateh Ahron, (1997), volume 1, p 175.