They tell a story of an airplane pilot who radioed in to the tower the following message, "I have good news and bad news. The good news is we are making excellent time. The bad news is we are hopelessly lost."
This Shabbat we mark the last Shabbat of the year. We are on the threshhold of Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement. This is a season of introspection. The shofar sounds we hear during this month of Elul each morning after prayers and on Rosh Hashana days are the sounds of alarm. "Wake up you who are asleep from your slumber..."
The presumption is that all of us have in some ways fallen asleep.
Like the pilot in our vignette, we live our lives hurriedly dashing from one exigency to another, seemingly making excellent time. And yet, like him, we are hopelessly lost of direction and purpose. Our lives are full of form but oh so empty of substance.
This week we read the parsha of Neetzavim. It is a fitting reading for the close of the year. A significant section of this noticeably small parsha deals with the call to 'teshuva', repentance and return. Seven times in the course of the reading the word or variation of the word, "shav", "return" is found. According to the Ramban we are given this week the mitzvah of teshuva, one of the final 613 commandments of the Torah.
The Rambam disagrees. He does not count teshuva as a separate mitzvah within the 613.
Though the Torah makes return after sin an obligation and repeats it time and time again in the reading of the week, the Rambam maintains it is not a stand-alone obligation. Only the 'viduy', the requirement to confess after sinning, does the Rambam list as a mitzvah and that he derives from the section of the sacrifices in the book of Vayikra.
And why does the Ramabam not see a unique mitzvah in repentance? It cannot be because it is not mandated. The Torah calls us to repentance over and over in the course of the portion we read this week. Teshuva is a cornerstone of Judaism.
In the words of the Talmud "...every day of our life we are meant to be invested in the work of teshuva."
The answer that has been suggested is that while for the Rambam teshuva is every bit as central to Jewish practice as it is for the Ramban, and while the Rambam gives credence to Teshuva with a whole separate section in his magnum opus, "The Mishne Torah", on the subject of Teshuva, Teshuva cannot be seen as a free standing commandment. Look at the words in the Torah this week. When it describes the spiritual return The Torah says:
" And it will be after all these things will befall you the blessings and the curses that I have placed on you. And you will take to heart your situation in your dispersion amongst the non'Jewish nations where Hashem your G-d has exiled you. And you will return unto Hashem and you will harken to His voice and to all you have been commanded this day, you and your children with all your heart and soul"
Note when the Torah speaks of Teshuva it does not contextualize it as regrets over specific failings, say, failing to keep the Sabbath, maintain the dietary laws, or give sufficient charity. No, the Torah speaks of repentance as "return unto G-d".
Any individual sin we may commit, no matter how blatant, requires return because it is a manifestation of our distance from Hashem, not because of the individual transgression. The work of our life is to cultivate an intimacy with G-d, one based on both love and reverance. When we sin, it is not the violations itself that warrants regret and requires redress, but that in transgressing we display and lapse in our relationship with the Divine.
It is for this reason that the Rambam does not enumerate Teshuva as one of the 613 mitzvot. Important? Absolutely! and indeed absolutely important! But for the Rambam the call to repentance and return is already embedded in the mitzva to love and fear G-d. The challenge to love and fear Hashem makes repentance necessary and ongoing, a part of our life. Saying sorry and making personal improvement is as core to our intimacy with G-d as it is core to cultivating a loving intimacy with our spouse.Both require constant expression of remorse and re-adjustment to restore an intimacy compromised and help it grow.
Like the pilot in the vignette with which we began, we tend to live our spiritual lives trying to make good time. We collect mitzvot as the pilot made his miles. When we fail, we tend to see our failure as committing a specific sin. When we regroup we see the correction as simply fixing the broken element. Teshuva then becomes a matter of making new resolutions, taking on different behaviors. Then all is right and we can go speeding along through life.
Problem with that model is "return" was never about getting up to speed. It was never about a specific right or wrong. The rights and wrongs are only relevant inasmuch as they symbolize a lack in love or fear of G-d.It is the lack of fear and/or love that needs constant attention in our life. Teshuva is not about repairing the part but about restoring the direction and the intimacy with the Divine.
In thinking about Rosh Hashana and these approaching holy days I found this model helpful. We are here in this world for only one reason. We are here to earn the rights to claim citizenship in the next world, the world that counts. To be a citizen there we have to love that world, the world of the spirit, the world of G-d.
No matter how many acts of doing this or that we bring with us, unless we have become the kind of persons that belong in that world, that love the spirit, that invest in the holy, we will struggle to become citizens there.
The individual mitzva or avaira, only has meaning inasmuch as it is expression of our desire for G-d or the lack of same. A "good" life is one where we place emphasis on matters of the spirit and our yearning for attachment to G-d. Collect mitzvot for any other reason and you are like the pilot, lots of miles, with no direction of purpose! You have a full house of nothing!
A _"sinful" life is where our focus is on the material, on posessing here and now , on physical pleasure and success. No matter how many mitzvot we keep if that is our agenda we thereby show disdain for the world of G-d, the world of the spirit.
The question we need to ask ourselves on Rosh Hashanah is "where do I live?"
True we all reside in this the temporal world of the material and finite. But where do I live? Where is my home?
Teshuva is not so much about being sorry for this or that but rather about having lost my way home!
The work is the work of "return".
We need return to the world from which we came and to which we will someday return, this time as citizens.
May the year ahead be one of growth and meaning for you and all those you love.
May you and yours be inscribed and sealed in the book of life and blessing.
L'shana tova teekataivu v'taichataimu!