The Jewish New Year: ‘Return’, Free Will—and Israel

Tuvia Brodie,

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צילום: ערוץ 7
Tuvia Brodie
Tuvia Brodie has a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh under the name Philip Brodie. He has worked for the University of Pittsburgh, Chatham College and American Express. He and his wife made aliyah in 2010. All of his children have followed. He believes in Israel's right to exist. He believes that the words of Tanach (the Jewish Bible) are meant for us. His blog address is http://tuviainil.blogspot.com He usually publishes 3-4 times a week on his blog and 1-3 times at Arutz Sheva. Please check the blog regularly for new posts.

The celebration of the new Jewish year (Rosh HaShannah) 5777 begins this year at sundown on October 2, 2016. It’s a two-day period of prayer and reflection.

For religious Jews, Rosh HaShannah is a time of Judgment. HaShem, our G-d, looks at each of us. He considers what we have done in public over the year just passed. He considers what we have hidden. He knows everything. He Judges us.

On Rosh HaShannah, we are called to return to Him. In special Rosh HaShannah prayers, we praise His Kingship. We pray HaShem will judge us mercifully.

In Yeshivot (seminaries of higher learning) around the world, young (and many not-so-young) men have already spent much of the last month (the Hebrew month of Elul, which will end as the New Year begins) studying the path of ‘return’. That path is called, ‘t’shuva’. T’shuva means, ‘return’, and it refers by tradition to repenting our sins and to our “returning” to the path G-d has taught us to follow.

Many of these Yeshivot spend Elul studying the work of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204). In particular, many study the Rambam’s “Hilchot Tshuva” (“The Laws of Repentance”).

This work sets the standard for repentance. It discusses practically everything you’d want to know about repentance. It gives one a ‘path of repentance’ to follow.

Somewhere near the middle of this text (Chapters 5 and 6), the Rambam appears to change direction. He stops talking about the laws of Repentance. He talks of ‘Free Will’. 

He cites a posuk (verse) from a Parsha (Torah portion) that is always read just before our New Year begins. That posuk appears in chapter 30 in the Book of D’varim. It speaks of a ‘return’ to HaShem. This year, we read those words on Shabbat, October 1, 2016.

Through this posuk, the Rambam reminds us of two realities: (1) the ‘return’ (as described in Chapter 30) is a potential foundation for the idea of repentance-as-return (as found in the Rosh HaShannah prayers); and (2) Free will makes ‘return’ possible; Free Will is how we return to HaShem.

But ‘return’, as described in D’varim Chapter 30 (it’s in Parshat Nitzavim), is not just a spiritual ‘return’ (repentance). It refers also (ibid, 30:1-3) to a ‘return’ to Eretz Yisroel’ (the land of Israel).

It turns out that ‘t’shuva’ (return) doesn’t just mean repentance (a return to HaShem). It also means, ‘to return to your Promised Land’ (ibid).

In this Chapter 30, t’shuva has a specific purpose. It’s a repentance in order to assure “survival and long life when you dwell in the land that HaShem swore to your fathers” (ibid, D’varim 30:20). T’shuva is, in other words, a spiritual ‘return’ to benefit, support and enhance our physical ‘return’ to Israel.

To press home the significance of this double meaning of ‘t’shuva’ (return), Rabbi Moshe Lichtman reminds us of a most unusual ‘coincidence’ between this D’varim Chapter 30 and the modern state of Israel (Eretz Yisrael in the Parshah, Devorah Publishing, Jerusalem, 2006, p. 400). He reminds us first that the secular year 1948 (when modern Israel was born) was the Jewish year 5708.

The Jewish year 5708 (1948) was the year the Jewish people officially began its return to its homeland. Rabbi Lichtman then reminds us that the 5708th posuk (verse) in the Torah says, “(D’varim, 30:4) if your dispersed [people] will be at the ends of the heavens, from there the Lord your G-d will gather you up and take you back; …(D’varim, 30:5) to the Land your ancestors occupied, and you too will occupy it”.

What happened in the Jewish year 5708 was exactly what the 5708th posuk promised: to bring the Jews ‘back’; and the 5709th posuk states explicitly that ‘back’ means to the Land of our Jewish Ancestors.

With the number 5708, HaShem reminds us of His Promised ‘return’. Do you hear Him?

Through the words of Nitzavim (D’varim, Chapter 30), we see HaShem speaking to us of life, ‘good’ and ‘return’. But you must not forget that, in Chapter 30, ‘return’ is both spiritual and physical.

To return---to do t’shuva—we must exercise our Free Will. That exercise applies equally to our spiritual repentance through prayer and to our physical return to Israel. Nitzavim tells us that our spiritual return (repentance) has only one purpose (ibid): to assure our survival as we dwell in Israel.

Do you dwell in Israel?

Through Free Will, you will repent. Through Free Will, you will return to your homeland, Israel.

T’shuva means two things, not one. It means to return to HaShem (repent)—and to return home (aliyah).

May HaShem write your name into the Book of Life. May He seal your name as one to receive a sweet new year--in Israel.