Within Reach: Avidan's Reflections on Teshuvah

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Please enjoy a d'var Torah this week by Rosh Garinim 2019 Avidan Halivni. 2019 was Avidan’s twelfth summer at camp, and his fifth on staff! In 2018 he was Rosh Garinim and Halutzim. Originally from Deerfield, Illinois, Avidan recently graduated from Columbia University with a major in religion. He is spending this year in Germany, serving the Conservative/Masorti movement there.

Within Reach: Reflections on Teshuvah
by Avidan Halivni

As we prepare to enter the final Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah, the gravity of the season’s themes weighs heavily on our shoulders. The sounds of the shofar ring daily in our ears, signaling the beginning of a process of cheshbon hanefesh (self-reflection) that demands tough conversations with one’s peers and oneself. We focus all our attention on teshuvah / repentance, on changing our behaviors for the better, hoping that this year we will become the people we strive to be.

Yet the enormity of this task is daunting. True repentance is such a lofty goal that oftentimes we don’t know where to begin. The endpoint feels far away, with too many steps in between to see where the path to teshuvah starts. 

The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (13th century Spain), confronts this anxiety directly in his commentary on this week’s parashah, Nitzavim, poignantly linking the verses to the context of this calendar moment. This parashah continues Moses’s final address to the Israelite people, as he offers these words of comfort to a nation concerned about its ability to uphold the precious teachings of the Torah:   

כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹ֥א רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא׃ 
לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃ 
וְלֹֽא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲבָר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃ 
כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ׃

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.
It is not in the heavens
, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”
Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”
No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
(Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

These verses, notorious for their inclusion in the famous Talmudic story of the Oven of Achnai (Bava Metziah 59b), reassure the people of Israel that they are capable of observing the laws and instructions of the Torah. Its fulfillment is not located in the heavens or beyond the sea, distant and untouchable places, but rather very close to them, attainable through the words of their mouths and the feelings in their hearts. 

In his commentary on these verses, the Ramban distills this broad message to the practice of one specific, fairly daunting mitzvah: repentance. As a reference to teshuvah, these verses meet head-on the concerns about not being able to reach one’s lofty goals. True repentance, though the finish line seems as far away as the heavens, is “not too esoteric or distant for you, but rather is very close to you to do it in every time and in every place.” Teshuvah is right at hand in one’s own words and feelings, a journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step.

As we embark on the season of introspection and teshuvah, let us not lose hope in the feasibility of our goals. We must not allow the importance of the task to scare us away from becoming the best versions of ourselves this year. No one will go across the sea for us to bring it back on our behalf; the onus is on us to take the first step in our own processes of teshuvah, knowing as we do that the entryway is close at hand. 

Wishing us all a 5780 of conviction in our own abilities.

Shanah tovah! 

Ann Lesley Rosen