Vayelech/Shabbos Shuva – Eternal Torah & the Power of Repentance

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayelech, Moshe continues to prepare for his upcoming demise, soon to take place on the eastern banks of the Jordan River.

He is commanded to write the song of Torah, to teach it to the Bnei Yisrael, to place it in their mouths, so that this song of Torah will be a witness against the Children of Israel; for when I bring them to the land that I swore to their forefathers, which flows with milk and honey, and they will eat and be sated, and grow fat, and turn to the gods of others and they will serve them; and they will anger Me and annul My covenant (Devarim 31:19-20)…

וְהָיָה כִּי-תִמְצֶאןָ אֹתוֹ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת, וְצָרוֹת, וְעָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְפָנָיו לְעֵד, כִּי לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי זַרְעוֹ:  כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-יִצְרוֹ, אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה הַיּוֹם, בְּטֶרֶם אֲבִיאֶנּוּ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי – And it will be that when many evils and distresses will befall it (the nation), then this song shall speak up before it as a witness, for it shall not be forgotten from the mouth of its offspring, for I know its inclination, what it does today, before I bring them to the land that I have sworn; וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא; וַיְלַמְּדָהּ, אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – and Moshe wrote this song on that day, and he taught it to the Children of Israel (ibid, v.21-22).

Rashi (v.21) comments: כי לא תשכח מפי זרעו. הֲרֵי זוֹ הַבְטָחָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁאֵין תּוֹרָה מִשְׁתַּכַּחַת מִזַּרְעָם לְגַמְרֵי, For it shall not be forgotten from the mouth of its offspring: Behold, this is a promise to Israel, that the Torah will not be completely forgotten from their descendants

During these auspicious, awe-inspiring days of the Aseres Yimei Teshuva (Ten Days of Repentance), when we take a good look at ourselves, assess the year that has just passed, and resolve to change in the new year that has just begun, we may wonder – is concrete, everlasting change even possible?  How can it be that sinful man, mortal beings, good Jews who have been swayed by the persuasions of the yetzer harah (evil inclination), can recreate their very personae?

And yet – we can and we do.  Despite the challenges we face and the fallibility inherent within us all, change for the better is possible

The Rambam writes (Hilchos Teshuva 2:4):

מִדַּרְכֵי הַתְּשׁוּבָה לִהְיוֹת הַשָּׁב צוֹעֵק תָּמִיד לִפְנֵי ה’, בִּבְכִי וּבְתַחֲנוּנִים, וְעוֹשֶׂה צְדָקָה כְּפִי כּוֹחוֹ, וּמִתְרַחֵק הַרְבֵּה מִן הַדָּבָר שֶׁחָטָא בּוֹ.  וּמְשַׁנֶּה שְׁמוֹ, כְּלוֹמַר שֶׁאֲנִי אַחֵר וְאֵינִי אוֹתוֹ הָאִישׁ שֶׁעָשָׂה אוֹתָן הַמַּעֲשִׂים; וּמְשַׁנֶּה מַעֲשָׂיו כֻּלָּן לְטוֹבָה, וּלְדֶרֶךְ יְשָׁרָה

The way of repentance is for the repentant to cry out constantly before Hashem with crying and supplication, and to give charity according to his means, and to stay far away from the matter in which he previously sinned.  And (it is as if) he changes his name!  (It is as if he is reborn), as if to say: I am a different person now!  I am not that person who did those sinful acts.  And he changes his ways and actions entirely for the good, on the straight path

So powerful is the gift of teshuva, that one who is a chozer b’teshuva (repentant) earns a new name (metaphorically), a new existence, a new entity for himself! 

Why is repentance possible?  What is the secret to our spiritual survival?

וְעָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְפָנָיו לְעֵד, כִּי לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי זַרְעוֹ – That the eternal Torah will bear witness to our eternal nation, that Torah will never be forgotten.  As Rashi explains: Behold, this is a promise to Israel, that the Torah will not be completely forgotten from their descendants.

The spark of Torah within each and every one of us, no matter our sins and error of ways, is the spiritual fire that ensures a Jew can always return in purity and holiness to the Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the world). 

R’ Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “Man, as seen by Judaism, is potentially a good progressive being.  However, man often finds himself in the grip of an overwhelming, irresistible force that pulls him downward.  The ascent up to the mount of the L-rd often turns into a rapid descent down the mount…

“Man moves toward the fulfillment of his destiny along a zig-zag line; progress frequently superseded by retrogression; closeness to G-d, by the dark night of separation.  Man not only rises but falls as well; and rises again from this fall only to fall once more.  Moral erring and culpability are interwoven into our very existential fabric.  No man can claim that he is perfect, that his existential experience has been purged of all selfish, undignified, brutish motives.  In a word, the Bible is confident of man, but is also very suspicious of him…

“Great is not the man who has never faltered, but the man who tripped, fell, and rose again to greater heights… If a man is not conscious of the contradiction inherent in the very core of his personality, he lives in a world of illusion and leads an unredeemed existence…

“At this point the idea of teshuva emerges and conveys to man the message of catharsis… In what does this catharsis express itself?  In the aptitude of man to take a critical look at himself and to admit failure, in the courage to confess, to plead guilty, in the readiness to accept defeat… To recite Vidui,  a confession, is the greatest of all virtues, the most heroic act; it is catharsis par excellence” (R’ Soloveitchik, Tradition 17, No.2 [1978]: 53, 54).

We must recognize in ourselves the tremendous power and capability that lies within.  For Torah will never be forgotten from our nation.  And it is the Torah, dormant at times as it may be within the sinner, that gives rise to the power of repentance. 

In the merit of our repentance, individual and collective, may we, our families, our entire nation, and our Land, merit a gmar v’chasima tova

בברכת שבת שלום ושנה טובה ומתוקה,


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