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Parashat Vayelech 5777 — 10/08/2016

Parashat Vayelech 5777 — 10/08/2016

Shabbat Shuvah

Devarim 31:1 – 31:30

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. R. Steinsaltz has beautiful essays on both parashat Nitzavim and Shabbat Shuvah. I will just talk about the latter.

R. Steinsaltz begins by pointing out that in some ways Shabbat and t’shuvah are incompatible with one another:

Teshuva is commonly understood as inner change that entails a certain amount of retrospection focusing on the negative aspects of one’s past conduct. … the will and ability to do teshuva result to a great extent from the repudiation of the past and the need to distance oneself from it.

To be sure, teshuva also has an aspect of rejuvenation, of erasing the past and rewriting oneself, a refreshing aspect of hope for a new beginning. But this aspect, too, contains within it the rejection and destruction of what once was.

This aspect of teshuva has a time and a place – both in daily prayer, which includes petitions for teshuva and forgiveness, and also on certain days of the year that are dedicated to this spiritual work of teshuva, with the soul searching and pain that it can entail.

Shabbat stands in contrast to all of this. Shabbat is supposed to be a day of joy, reconciliation, and both spiritual and physical rest. … Shabbat rest entails not only the cessation of physical work but also the attainment of inner calm and tranquility. For this reason, none of the Shabbat prayers and hymns focuses on teshuva or forgiveness.

The answer to this question is that Shabbat Shuva joins Shabbat and teshuva not on the simple, ordinary level but on a much deeper level. In fact, the very term teshuva hints at a different understanding of this concept than what we are accustomed to hearing. We do not call it harata (remorse) or shevirat lev (broken-heartedness) but, rather, teshuva – return.

We associate t’shuvah most strongly with Yom Kippur, and of course on Yom Kippur we afflict [our] souls with fasting and other restraints on our behavior and comfort. It may be a day of great exaltation, as we become free, if only for a while, of the bondage of our bodies, but of course our bodies don’t take too kindly to this. We also associate t’shuvah with bewailing our past, and since, hopefully at least, the past was a lower state of development, which involved mistakes and their consequences, t’shuvah can often be a painful, cringe-worthy process. None of this is consistent with the atmosphere of Shabbat.

To understand how the two can go together, we must expand our definitions of both Shabbat and t’shuvah:

teshuva takes on a deeper meaning: return to the “original source,” the source of a person’s being even before his physical life in this world. Teshuva on this level, which takes a person farther, beyond his life and deeds in this world, involves much less conflict or confrontation with past defects or blemishes, for it is like a total rebirth, a beginning almost from the point of origin.

This kind of return, I think, is a return to the transcendental basis of our own life, the “point of origin” from which we, and everything else, spring. The result of such a return, when stabilized, is a complete transformation of our life from an outward, materially-directed life to an inward, spiritually-directed life. It gets stabilized by repeatedly “doing t’shuva” – that is, by repeatedly bringing our awareness to that transcendental state. As we do this, the transcendental value becomes established in our awareness as being what we truly are. Then t’shuva is at once constant and yet not really needed – we no longer have to “return” to where we live, we are just at home.

The same kind of redefinition is true for Shabbat:

Conceptually, Shabbat, too, includes an element of return and restoration of things to their source. To be sure, shevita means cessation of action, leaving everything in a state of rest. But the word shavat is also connected to shiva, meaning “return.” Shabbat is a return to a point prior to our coming into being. On the one hand, Shabbat is the completion of everything that exists, but on the other hand, it is a return to the state before Creation, to a state of non-existence, to the day before the first day.

This conception of Shabbat as a state of existence that preceded the world is found, for example, in the piyut, Lekha Dodi which describes Shabbat as “the source of blessing” In other words, Shabbat is not an epilogue to the six days of Creation but a kind of prologue.

The sense of return that is found both in teshuva and Shabbat is the heart of the connection between the two. We are encouraged to think little of the past and much more of what could yet be; we do not obsess over our sins, but instead focus on the exaltation of teshuva.

Just as t’shuvah is return to the “point of origin” of our individuality, Shabbat is a taste of the return of the cosmos to the “point of origin” whence it came. It is as if Shabbat is t’shuva for the universe. R. Steinsaltz describes this as a return to a state of “non-existence, to the day before the first day.” I think that “non-existence” here means not annihilation, but transcendence, a state beyond all finite existences, but one that is infinite and full in its potentiality, beyond any specific forms or phenomena. And just as we are transformed by our individual t’shuva, Shabbat transforms the cosmos. This is why desecrating the Sabbath is such a severe transgression – when we desecrate the Sabbath it is as if we deny t’shuva to the universe!

This then is the link that gives us Shabbat Shuvah – the process of transcending repeatedly so that the infinite nature of the transcendent can become stabilized in every aspect of our being, and through us into the objective world. On Shabbat Shuvah we are reborn and the creation is reborn, moving ever closer to perfection.

Haftarah: Hoshea 14:2-10, Yoel 2:11-27, Micah 7:18-20

Artscroll notes that customs vary which parts of the three different prophets are read. However Shabbat Shuvah is named after the first of the Hoshea verses, so I would imagine that it is almost universally read first.

Return O Israel to Hashem, your Gd, for you have stumbled in your iniquity.

Ephraim will say, “What more need have I for idols?” I will respond and look to him. I am like an ever-fresh cypress, from Me shall your fruit be found. (Hoshea 14:2, 9)

What is an idol? I have often seen it defined as something finite to which one attributes Divinity. We do this all the time, because generally we are not very familiar with infinity, with the Divine. The answer? “Return, O Israel…” Return to the infinity that is your own essential nature. Return to Gd, the infinity at the basis of all creation. Once we know infinity, we can enjoy the finite, but we don’t need the finite. Once we know the infinite, the infinite smiles at us and provides us with everything we could ever need or want.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Vayelech

(“And he went”)

Recitation of Vayalech:

Given the reality of Torah as the Vibration of Gd, the sound is closer to the reality than the meaning, although the meaning is very useful to us to remind us of the importance of worshipping The One, not getting lost in details of the material world to the extent that we think the material world is the only reality.

The following link gives a recitation in Hebrew of a few verses of Parsha Vayalech and a few tips for study of parsha recitation of Torah with tropes:

In this parsha, Moses tells the people and Joshua, the new leader, to be of courage for the Lord is with them.

Deuteronomy 31.

חוַֽיהֹוָ֞ה ה֣וּא | הַֽהֹלֵ֣ךְ לְפָנֶ֗יךָ ה֚וּא יִֽהְיֶ֣ה עִמָּ֔ךְ לֹ֥א יַרְפְּךָ֖ וְלֹ֥א יַֽעַזְבֶ֑ךָּ לֹ֥א תִירָ֖א וְלֹ֥א תֵחָֽת:

The Lord appears in a pillar of cloud before the Tent in which he has commanded Moses and Joshua to go. He tells them that Moses is about to die and predicts the people will turn away from Torah, Gd will hide his face from them but he should teach them the song He will give them to remember and to teach to their children so the song will bear witness that Gd is Good, Almighty, The Only Gd, and that when Israel has rebelled and worshipped false gods, he will turn from them, will give them deep troubles to remind them to return to Him and the song (and its Truth) will be in the mouths of their children to follow Torah.

What can we make of this today?

One thing is to read Torah, listen to Torah, so we are attuned to it: it is in our heart to spontaneously be in harmony with it, to spontaneously act in It.

We can also study Torah to discover its plain meanings, its hidden meanings, and especially its application to the details of our life. As an example, we can prioritize Wholeness and whatever activities we do that connect us to it: in this way, we grow in our ability to Love Gd with all our heart and soul.

We can behave kindly to others, especially strangers, for in this way we love everyone outside ourself as we love our self/Self and we grow in the ability to experience that the world outside us is the same One that is within us. We gain Teshuvah and we live our life in Love and Joy. All our failings, limits, and past wrong behaviors are melted in Oneness.

So let us listen to Gd speaking through Moses: Be of good courage for Gd is with us.

Baruch HaShem