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Parshat Nitzavim and Sefer Yirmiyahu: Teshuva and the Search for Truth

For a printable Pdf version click here: Parshat Nitzavim – Teshuva and the search for Truth 5774

Teshuva calls on man to return God. To stand before the creator of the Universe in awe and wonder and proclaim His essence.  It requires us to peel away the layers of superficiality and triviality that have built up over the years, forcing us to approach ourselves and our existence with an openness and authenticity that comes from the face to face encounter with the Divine and with humanity.

Let us not be fooled, the task is not a simple one. It takes a lifetime of striving and struggling, and even then do we know if we have achieved what was required of us?

In the Shulchan Aruch we are told as follows:

It is customary to get up early and say סליחות (penitential prayers) and supplications from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur. [The Askenazi custom is not like that rather, we begin blowing Shofar after the morning prayer from Rosh Chodesh Elul and onward.  There are places where they also blow the Shofar again in the evening (after מעריב). The custom is to get up early to say סליחות

the Sunday before Rosh Hashana. And if Rosh Hashana falls out on Monday or Tuesday, we start סליחות from the previous Sunday. (Shulchan Aruch: Hilchot Rosh Hashana chapter 581 )

In its simple Halakhic language the Shulchan Aruch offers us a profound insight into what is required of us preceding Rosh Hashana – preparation. Though this may seem an obvious and mundane requirement, theologically it offers us a key to understanding the Jewish mindset.  Nothing in life is instantaneous. Nothing can be achieved from one minute to the next.[1]  Things that are worthy, meaningful, authentic, require process, time and patience.  We have to take time out from our routine to approach God and ourselves, to reflect on the year gone by and prepare for the coming one.

Sefer Yirmiyahu: Teshuva and the problem of Knowing:

In arguably the principal book on Teshuva in Tanach I turn to Sefer Yirmiyahu). Yirmiyahu is a prophet that prophesised before and during the time of the destruction of the first Temple.  The book presents the beseeching of a Prophet to his beloved people to turn back from the brink of disaster.  He implores them to return to God so as to avoid the terrible destruction (they are) that is about to ensue.

What is fascinating about the book is the way Yirmiyahu describes the sins of the people:[2]

א שׁוֹטְטוּ בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וּרְאוּ-נָא וּדְעוּ וּבַקְשׁוּ בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ, אִם-תִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ, אִם-יֵשׁ עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט מְבַקֵּשׁ אֱמוּנָה–וְאֶסְלַח, לָהּ.  ב וְאִם חַי-ה, יֹאמֵרוּ; לָכֵן לַשֶּׁקֶר, יִשָּׁבֵעוּ.  ג ה, עֵינֶיךָ הֲלוֹא לֶאֱמוּנָה–הִכִּיתָה אֹתָם וְלֹא-חָלוּ, כִּלִּיתָם מֵאֲנוּ קַחַת מוּסָר; חִזְּקוּ פְנֵיהֶם מִסֶּלַע, מֵאֲנוּ לָשׁוּב.

1 Run ye to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and seek in the broad places thereof, if ye can find a man, if there be any that doeth justly, that seeketh truth; and I will pardon her. 2 And though they say: ‘As the LORD liveth’, surely they swear falsely. 3 O LORD, are not Thine eyes upon truth? Thou hast stricken them, but they were not affected; Thou hast consumed them, but they have refused to receive correction; they have made their faces harder than a rock; they have refused to return. (Yirmiyahu 5)

What we see above is that Yirmiyahu seeks a man that will save the nation. There is a clear textual and thematic parallel here to Abraham’s argument with God about Sodom.  Avraham too, seeks to find ten righteous men that will save the nation, however the wording differs very slightly and in its difference lies the key – עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט מְבַקֵּשׁ אֱמוּנָהYirmiyahu and God are not just interested in man that does justice, but perhaps most importantly a man who seeks truth.[3] This paradigm of a person who seeks, questions and thinks as someone who can do teshuva is at the heart of Yirmiyahu’s lament.

In another very significant passage God implores the people to search for wisdom:

טז כֹּה אָמַר ה עִמְדוּ עַל-דְּרָכִים וּרְאוּ וְשַׁאֲלוּ לִנְתִבוֹת עוֹלָם, אֵי-זֶה דֶרֶךְ הַטּוֹב וּלְכוּ-בָהּ, וּמִצְאוּ מַרְגּוֹעַ, לְנַפְשְׁכֶם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לֹא נֵלֵךְיז וַהֲקִמֹתִי עֲלֵיכֶם צֹפִים, הַקְשִׁיבוּ לְקוֹל שׁוֹפָר; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לֹא נַקְשִׁיב.  יח לָכֵן, שִׁמְעוּ הַגּוֹיִם; וּדְעִי עֵדָה, אֶת-אֲשֶׁר-בָּם.  יט שִׁמְעִי הָאָרֶץ–הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מֵבִיא רָעָה אֶל-הָעָם הַזֶּה, פְּרִי מַחְשְׁבוֹתָם:  כִּי עַל-דְּבָרַי לֹא הִקְשִׁיבוּ, וְתוֹרָתִי וַיִּמְאֲסוּ-בָהּ.

16 Thus saith the LORD: stand ye in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said: ‘We will not walk therein.’ 17 And I set watchmen over you: ‘Attend to the sound of the horn’, but they said: ‘We will not attend.’ 18 Therefore hear, ye nations, and know, O congregation, what is against them. 19 Hear, O earth: behold, I will bring evil upon this people, even the fruit of their thoughts, because they have not attended unto My words, and as for My teaching, they have rejected it.(Yirmiyahu 6)

Here wisdom is to be found by ‘walking the paths and asking the ways of the world’. The people refuse to do so.  They are not interested in independent inquiry, in a search for Truth.  They accept the status quo.  Instead of pursuit there is inertia and apathy.  In my opinion the key to understating this passage lies in the words , וּמִצְאוּ מַרְגּוֹעַ, לְנַפְשְׁכֶם – In English it is translates as ‘they will find rest for their souls’.  In searching the different paths you will come to ‘ find peace in your soul’. However I believe this can be translated in fact to mean the very opposite – it could be translated as ‘You will find a path away from a peaceful soul’  i.e. the search will lead to a tumultuous experience and not a peaceful one, since any introspection and search for Truth incorporates an element of inner turmoil, that many people don’t want to experience.    It is perhaps for this reason the people refuse to search.  They are happy with the peaceful lives they lead and do not want to walk the path of Truth.  Therefore it is the ‘fruit of their thoughts’ that is the reason for their punishment.

Of course there is something almost daunting about independent inquiry. It is not a quest for the weary.  It requires courage and independence.  It is not an easy path to take and it may lead to pain and despondency.  But it is the path that we are called to walk upon, beginning with the Lech Lecha of Avraham throughout the generations people have beckoned to the voice of the lech lecha call, echoed in the sound of the shofar that they hear resonating in their psyche.

Yirmiyahu speaks about the fact that wise men who believe they are wise, are in fact foolish and full of lies and hence God punished them.[4]  Yirmiyahu uses an interesting phrase that repeats itself  throughout his prophecies, and is almost uniquely used by him.  The expression of בִּשְׁרִרוּת לִבּוֹ which can be loosely translated as the ‘arbitrariness of the heart/mind’. It is an important expression in understating the sin of the people and their refusal to return to God. It is also central to the notion of Truth and search for knowledge.

טז כֹּה-אָמַר ה צְבָאוֹת, אַל-תִּשְׁמְעוּ עַל-דִּבְרֵי הַנְּבִאִים הַנִּבְּאִים לָכֶם–מַהְבִּלִים הֵמָּה, אֶתְכֶם:  חֲזוֹן לִבָּם יְדַבֵּרוּ, לֹא מִפִּי ה.  יז אֹמְרִים אָמוֹר, לִמְנַאֲצַי, דִּבֶּר ה, שָׁלוֹם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם; וְכֹל הֹלֵךְ בִּשְׁרִרוּת לִבּוֹ, אָמְרוּ, לֹא-תָבוֹא עֲלֵיכֶם, רָעָה

16 Thus saith the LORD of hosts: Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you, they lead you unto vanity; they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the LORD. 17 They say continually unto them that despise Me: ‘The LORD hath said: Ye shall have peace’; and unto every one that walked in the stubbornness of his own heart they say: ‘No evil shall come upon you’;[5]

The reality Yirmiyahu describes is one in which Prophets believe they preach the truth and peace, but instead are simply filled with an arbitrariness of their hearts – or more accurately their minds.[6]  It is what is termed in modern philosophical language as epistemology – the problem of knowing.  How do we know anything? What is the source of our knowledge? The Prophets and the people in the time of Yirmiyahu proclaim that they have ultimate knowledge of peace and truth, when in reality their refusal to search in an open, genuine and honest way leads them instead to falsehood.

In doing so they reverse the entire role of humanity by walking backwards instead of forwards; Progress of man has come to a standstill:

כד וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, וְלֹא-הִטּוּ אֶת-אָזְנָם, וַיֵּלְכוּ בְּמֹעֵצוֹת, בִּשְׁרִרוּת לִבָּם הָרָע; וַיִּהְיוּ לְאָחוֹר, וְלֹא לְפָנִים

24 But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in their own counsels, even in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward (Yirmiyahu 7).

Hence their minds deceive them – instead of walking forward they walk backwards – they don’t look towards the implication of their actions, they don’t travel a path forward but remain stagnant, stuck in past imaginings, or past conceptions. They fail to engage with new knowledge and new perception.

But the clarity of truth comes only for someone who searches, only for the person who understands that truth is a journey, a process, a constant revaluation and not just a passive simple state of being. As expressed again in a stark way by Yirmiyahu:

יב וּקְרָאתֶם אֹתִי וַהֲלַכְתֶּם, וְהִתְפַּלַּלְתֶּם אֵלָי; וְשָׁמַעְתִּי, אֲלֵיכֶם.  יג וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם אֹתִי, וּמְצָאתֶם:  כִּי תִדְרְשֻׁנִי, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם.

12 And ye shall call upon Me, and go, and pray unto Me, and I will hearken unto you. 13 And ye shall seek Me, and find Me, when ye shall search for Me with all your heart. (Yirmiyahu 29)

The entire notion of teshuva and search for truth underpins the book of Yirmiyahu. It seems that the very essence of the teshuva process requires an awakening of our minds and hearts to the essence of our existence, our conscience and our moral and ethical responsibility to the other.  This is expressed beautifully in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book A Passion for Truth:

In stressing Truth as Judaism’s supreme concern, the Kotzker also did not think primarily in terms of theoretical attainment of Truth, but rather in terms of living in truth, in confrontation with God….

Being Truth, according to the Kotzker, like being in Truth according to Kierkegaard, implied a never ending process. Man was always in a situation where he had to strive…..

In the Hebrew Bible there is no equation of God with any of his attributes, such as love, justice or compassion. In Jewish liturgy (based on Jeremiah 10:10), however, the equation can be found: God is truth.  Love, justice, compassion are merely expression of the Divine, not its highest manifestation.  Truth is always with God.  It is the mystery of being.  Therefore, the way that always leads to God is Truth.

Yet Truth is buried and remains hidden. In a world full of falsehood, Truth can survive only in concealment, for lies lie in wait everywhere,  As soon as Truth is disclosed, it is surrounded by forces seeking to destroy it…..

The test of Truth can take place only through the soul’s confrontation with God, in moments of disregard for self regard, confronting oneself as one is confronted by God. The result is not an arbitrary private judgement.  One is overcome by the certainty that to express God’s existence is like affirming the existence of other human beings. (A.J. Heshel A Passion for Truth)

Heschel expresses a profound idea here, based on the Rebbe of Kotzke and Kierkegaard. The notion of Truth is a process, that comes from confronting God – i.e. returning to God. It is found in the fact that we search for God and not necessarily search for Truth, because Truth is hidden.  If we do not use our hearts and minds and instead align ourselves with superficiality, we will never encounter God and subsequently the true reality of our existence. Man is well versed in ‘covering up’, we had a wonderful teacher – God Himself, who upon exiling Man and Woman from Gan Eden, covered them with coats of skin/light.  He taught us from our inception that to live in a world where truth is hidden will require a hiding of self too.  He taught us that to uncover reality, to search for truth, will require a lifetime of work and walking along many paths.  In acquiring knowledge by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, we simultaneously made room for superficiality.  The question we were left with is how to uncover the correct things, how to make the search itself meaningful and how to know what is real and what is not.  The answer God explains, is found through the very process of searching the many paths, and opening our minds and hearts to knowledge and wisdom – not an empty superficiality or easy quick answers.

Parshat Nitzavim and the circumcising of our hearts:

It is at this point we must turn to this week’s Parsha – Nitzavim. Moshe describes to the people the blessings and curses that will ensue depending on their actions as a nation.  He then articulates the process of Teshuva, returning to God.  Perhaps unsurprisingly we encounter the unusual term we saw repeated in Yirmiyahu’s prophecies: בִּשְׁרִרוּת לִבָּם ‘The Arbitrariness the heart/mind’:

יג וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם, לְבַדְּכֶם–אָנֹכִי, כֹּרֵת אֶת-הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת, וְאֶת-הָאָלָה, הַזֹּאת.  יד כִּי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם, לִפְנֵי, ה אֱלקינוּ; וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם.  טו כִּי-אַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-יָשַׁבְנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָבַרְנוּ בְּקֶרֶב הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר עֲבַרְתֶּם.  טז וַתִּרְאוּ, אֶת-שִׁקּוּצֵיהֶם, וְאֵת, גִּלֻּלֵיהֶם–עֵץ וָאֶבֶן, כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב אֲשֶׁר עִמָּהֶם.  יז פֶּן-יֵשׁ בָּכֶם אִישׁ אוֹ-אִשָּׁה אוֹ מִשְׁפָּחָה אוֹ-שֵׁבֶט, אֲשֶׁר לְבָבוֹ פֹנֶה הַיּוֹם מֵעִם ה אֱלֹקינוּ, לָלֶכֶת לַעֲבֹד, אֶת-אֱלקי הַגּוֹיִם הָהֵם:  פֶּן-יֵשׁ בָּכֶם, שֹׁרֶשׁ פֹּרֶה רֹאשׁ–וְלַעֲנָה.  יח וְהָיָה בְּשָׁמְעוֹ אֶת-דִּבְרֵי הָאָלָה הַזֹּאת, וְהִתְבָּרֵךְ בִּלְבָבוֹ לֵאמֹר שָׁלוֹם יִהְיֶה-לִּי–כִּי בִּשְׁרִרוּת לִבִּי, אֵלֵךְ:  לְמַעַן סְפוֹת הָרָוָה, אֶת-הַצְּמֵאָה.  יט לֹא-יֹאבֶה ה, סְלֹחַ לוֹ–כִּי אָז יֶעְשַׁן אַף-ה וְקִנְאָתוֹ בָּאִישׁ הַהוּא, וְרָבְצָה בּוֹ כָּל-הָאָלָה הַכְּתוּבָה בַּסֵּפֶר הַזֶּה; וּמָחָה ה אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם.  כ וְהִבְדִּילוֹ ה לְרָעָה, מִכֹּל שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–כְּכֹל, אָלוֹת הַבְּרִית, הַכְּתוּבָה, בְּסֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה.

13 Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath; 14 but with him that standeth here with us this day before the LORD our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day– 15 for ye know how we dwelt in the land of Egypt; and how we came through the midst of the nations through which ye passed; 16 and ye have seen their detestable things, and their idols, wood and stone, silver and gold, which were with them– 17 lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood; 18 and it come to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying: ‘I shall have peace, though I walk in the arbitrariness of my heart–that the watered be swept away with the dry’; 19 the LORD will not be willing to pardon him, but then the anger of the LORD and His jealousy shall be kindled against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and the LORD shall blot out his name from under heaven; 20 and the LORD shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that is written in this book of the law. (Devarim 30)

The person that walks with God בשררות לבם is destined to receive the worst of all the curses since he has chosen to escape the role ordained to man by God in the Garden of Eden – to search for God and inquire of him – as stated by Yirmiyahu above.   In failing to do this and instead ‘pretending’ to be peaceful and truthful, man commits himself to a life filled with curse.

In the next chapter (30) of the Parsha, which we have seen happening in our own lifetimes in front of our eyes, we are told that even if we do not return to God, He will still forgive our sins and will gather us from all corners of the earth to return to Him, returning us to our Land to posses it. The text then uses a strange expression: “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live”. (Devarim 30:6). Ramban here offers a beautiful insight in which he explains that ‘circumcising the heart’ returns man to what he was before Adam’s sin, a state where he will not desire or crave sin.  In light of what we have seen and reflecting on Ramban’s commentary we can perhaps understand the term to ‘circumcise your heart’ in a new way. To circumcise means to remove a layer of skin, to take off a layer of superficiality.  God is saying to the people as follows ‘Until now you have failed to return to me in the correct way.  Instead you have led a life of shallowness, covering up existence with superficialities.  Now is the time to peel away all the outer layers – to circumcise your hearts and minds and open them up to the real and the genuine experience of being human.  If you do so you will hear the איכה call to Adam and Chava, Kayin, and the rest of mankind, not as at face value – where are you ? But as the deep resonating cry of ‘where are YOU ?‘ – Who are you? What are you? Where is your responsibility to the other? Where is your genuine search for truth and an encounter with God?  If we are willing to embrace the words of Yirmiyahu today, we will understand the nuanced teshuva process that is required of us.   Perhaps then, we will be liberated from Yirmiyahu’s book of Eicha איכה  – a lament, and instead we will see the return of all of mankind to a world filled with truth and peace  – Amen.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] See my article on Shavuot time and process

[2] I use Yoram Hazony’s book The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scriptures as a basis to developing the following ideas.

[3] On the translation of emunah as truth see Yoram Hazony Ibid. chapter 7.  See also most translations translate the word as truth.

[4] Yirmiyahu 8:8-11

[5] Yirmiyahu 23

[6] Yarom Hazony argues that heart here is an incorrect translation: note on the translation of lev as heart

The Hebrew word lev taken literally, refers to the physical organ we call the heart, and as a consequence, most translations use the English heart wherever the original Hebrew has lev. But in most cases, this translation misses the meaning of the biblical authors, and in many it leads to outright mistakes in translation. Classical Hebrew has no parallel to the later Western dichotomy between the ‘heart’ as the seat of the emotions and the ‘mind’ as the seat of thought.  For the Biblical authors, sentiments are a part of the process of human thought and reason, and not something separate from it.  And when human beings are thinking, or reasoning, or believing, they do so with their lev, which is most directly translated as mind.   The fact that most Westerners read the biblical authors as though they are talking about the heart whenever they refer to the mind means that the entire biblical corpus takes on a kind of romantic, sentimental feeling that is absent in the original. (pg 171)

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