By Rav David Silverberg
In Parashat Nitzavim, Moshe foresees the time when Benei Yisrael will be banished from their land into exile on account of their wrongdoing, which will ultimately be followed by repentance: “You will return unto the Lord your God and heed His voice” (30:2). Once this happens, Moshe promises, God will return the nation to their homeland, gathering them from the countries among which they had been dispersed (30:3-4). Moshe then says, “And the Lord will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (30:5). It appears that although the ingathering of exiles will occur after the people repent, they will still require a process of internal cleansing, necessitating that the Almighty “circumcise” their hearts and inspire them “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” Benei Yisrael begin the process through the repentance they are capable of performing, and the Almighty then assists them the rest of the way so the process will be completed.
In light of this foreseen sequence of events, we might take note of the phrase “ad Hashem Elokekha” – “until the Lord your God” – with which Moshe describes Benei Yisrael’s repentance. The Gemara, in a famous passage (Yoma 86a), comments that when the prophet Hoshea (14:2) proclaims, “Return, O Israel, unto the Lord your God” (“Shuva Yisrael ad Hashem Elokekha”), he means that repentance literally reaches “unto” God, in the sense that, in the Gemara’s words, it “reaches the Heavenly Throne.” The phrase “ad Hashem Elokekha” in the context of teshuva speaks of its extraordinary power, the fact that it pierces the heavens and is lovingly accepted by God. Surprisingly, this phrase is used here in Parashat Nitzavim in reference to the first stage of the process, to incomplete repentance that still requires the “circumcising of the heart” and the complete cleansing of the sinner’s soul. It is specifically this kind of teshuva which “reaches the Heavenly Throne.”
The explanation, perhaps, is that the exalted teshuva which “reaches the Heavenly Throne” is the imperfect teshuva which we perform on our own, before God steps in to help us complete the process. Our repentance does not have to be pristine and unblemished for it to soar to the heavens and reach the Throne. It just has to be genuine and real. The repentance that “reaches the Heavenly Throne” is the repentance of sincere struggle, the repentance of inner tension and conflict, the repentance of a flawed human being waging a courageous battle against his negative tendencies and drives, a battle fueled by a genuine desire to improve. This repentance is far from perfect. This repentance is the product of a heart as yet “uncircumcised,” a heart that is still beset by sinful instincts. At this stage, the sinner remains uncleansed and tainted by sin. Nevertheless, his repentance reaches “unto the Lord your God” because it is sincere and genuine, because it is the product of the person’s own efforts and fierce struggle. This teshuva, the teshuva performed by the individual himself before God lends His assistance, is especially valuable and precious, even with all its flaws and deficiencies.
Originally appears on VBM