Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5764/ September 11, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



The Motif of Return

Menahem Ben-Yashar
Ashkelon College


The first ten verses of chapter 30 in this week’s reading are known as parashat ha-Teshuva, the discourse on repentance.   According to the semantics of the Bible teshuva refers to a double, two-directional returning:   Israel returns to G-d and G-d returns to Israel, as stated in Malachi (3:7):  “Turn back to Me, and I will turn back to you.” [1]

After the lengthy admonition in Parashat Ki Tavo (Deut. 28:15-68), with its depictions of disastrous Divine retribution, this passage on repentance comes as a happy ending, just as the Tokhahah, the passage of admonition in Leviticus (26:14-43), is followed by a promise of redemption (Lev. 26:42, 44-45).  In Deuteronomy, however, the passage on redemption does not follow directly after the admonition because Moses first issues a warning to his own generation (Deut. 29:1-8). The warning to his own generation is followed by an admonition to the people, all (or the vast majority) of whom are sinners, and a warning to isolated individuals or tribes in the nation, that they too will be punished if they sin (Deut. 29:9-20).  Next comes a description of the impact that the destruction of the land will have on the surrounding nations (Deut. 29:21-27), and then verse 28, which limits the threat of punishment, saying that the masses will not be punished for sins covertly committed by single individuals. [2]   After all these appendices to the admonition comes the parashat ha-Teshuva, anticipated tidings of a mutual return.

Out of the seven (or eight) [3] occurrences of the leitmotif verb sh–u–v in the passage of repentance and return, two describe the beginning of Israel’s repentance. The first, “va-hashevota el levavekha – and you take them to heart” (Deut 30:1), indicates that Israel is not yet turning back of its own accord to G-d, rather they are responding to their heart.  In their land of exile they turn their attention to the significance of what is happening to them:  beneficence was their lot when they acted well in the land in the past, and then, after they had fallen into sin, destruction and exile befell them.  

From this perspective, it follows that “ve-shavta ad Hashem Eloheikhah – and you shall return to the Lord your G-d.”   The word ad, “to,” indicates returning from a distance: Israel returns emotionally, spiritually, and even geographically, insofar as returning to G-d renews the aspiration to return to His holy land.  Indeed, it will be that “you heed His command, just as I enjoin upon you this day.” This does not mean actually observance of the commandments, for the verse continues:   “and obey all His commandments” (30:8), “keeping His commandments and laws” (30:10).   According to the principles of the Torah, the impure foreign land where Israel begins the journey of repentance is not worthy of performance of the commandments. [4]   As long as the people are still exiled in foreign lands, at best they will refrain from doing those things that are prohibited, especially idol worship.

The next stage in this reciprocal process of return is that G-d turns back towards Israel (30:3-5).  At this stage the root sh–u–v recurs twice (or thrice).   Here, too, the return is first one of emotions, as it were, and afterwards one of actual deeds.   “Then the Lord your G-d will restore (shav) your fortunes (shevutkha) [New JPS translation],” or alternatively, by the earlier JPS translation, “will turn thy captivity” – the structure of this sentence indicates that G-d will return to you, [5] after having hid His face from you in your state of exile. [6]   In parallel, “[He will] take you back in love” (earlier JPS translation – “He will have compassion upon you”), and out of this comes the actual returning:  “He will bring you together again” (more literally:   Ve-shav, from the root sh-u-v, He will return, ve-kibetzkha, and gather you”), bringing you to the land which was once the inheritance of Israel’s ancestors and will again become their inheritance; and what is more, “He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers” (30:5).

While the first stage was spiritual – turning back to G-d, the second stage is primarily practical – bringing Israel back to their land and to a state of well-being.  The third stage (verse 6) returns to the theme of the spiritual:   G-d will open up (lit. “circumcise”) Israel’s hearts so that they love Him and worship him wholeheartedly.   Two questions arise here:   first, why is this necessary after the first stage, in which Israel returned to G-d “with all your heart and soul” (10:2)?  Secondly, does not “circumcising” Israel’s hearts go against the principle of freedom of choice? [7]   Our response is that “circumcising” the heart does not entail intervention in what happens in the heart itself; the meaning of the expression is to remove the seal that prevents the heart from receiving correct and direct impressions.  The era of corruption and idolatry that preceded the exile, the period of the exile itself, with its travails and foreign environment – all these envelope the heart with negative thoughts and feelings which are difficult to overcome.  Thus, the Lord will help Israel overcome and turn a “new leaf.”  Departing from the impure land to which G-d exiled us and coming to Israel requires purity of heart.  Such purity is necessary due to the fear that once we return to the land, become numerous and successful there as in the past, we might again come to fulfill the verse, “So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked” (Deut. 32:15), and then we would sin again and be exiled again, and thus the cycle would repeat itself.  Circumcising and purifying the heart is an attempt to prevent this, as is intimated at the end of verse 6:  “in order that you may live,” that you may live in tranquility from now on.

The next verse, seven, also deals with G-d’s intervention, but this time towards the other nations:  the curses that were mentioned in the great admonition of Israel will henceforth apply to the nations that carried them out against Israel.   The world is founded on truth, justice and peace (Avot 1:18); truth and justice demand that the sinner be punished so that the right prevail and peace reign.   Just as the father of the nation, upon hearing the decree of bondage also heard “but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve” (Gen. 15:14), similarly here his descendants are promised that their persecutors will be punished.

The paragraph about Israel’s persecutors being punished comes in the middle, between two other paragraphs which deal entirely with Israel.  In each of the last three verses in the passage on repentance (each of which comprises a paragraph) there is one occurrence of the verb sh-u-v:  tashuv – in the expression “will again heed” (30:8); yashuv – will again delight (30:9); and again tashuv – once your return (30:10).  As in the first three units, here too there is an element of reciprocity:   Israel returns, then the Lord turns back to them, and finally the series concludes with Israel returning to their Maker.

As we said above, Israel’s return in verse eight refers to all the commandments being obeyed in the place worthy of such, namely in the Holy Land. The Lord’s response to this and to Israel is most lofty, “For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as He did in that of your fathers” (30:9).  The cause, or perhaps the necessary precondition for this, is stated in the last element, which returns to deal with the acts of Israel:  “Since you will be heeding the Lord your G-d and keeping His commandments and laws.”  Here, sounding the final chord, as it were, the Torah is mentioned:   “that are recorded in this book of the Teaching” (30:10).  This section and the entire passage on repentance concludes with the leitmotif:   “once you return to the Lord your G-d with all your heart and soul.”  Thus Israel’s return to the Lord, “with all your heart and soul,” is the motif that introduces and concludes the passage on repentance.   From this we learn that Israel returning to the Lord and mending their ways, after having broken the covenant, is a necessary precondition to the Lord returning to Israel.


[1] Rabbi E. Samet, Iyyunim be-Parashot ha-Shavua, vol. 2, Leviticus – Numbers – Deuteronomy, Jerusalem 2002, pp. 400-416, entitles this paragraph “the passage of Repentance and Redemption.” Much of what I learned from this very instructive source has been applied in this article.

[2] See Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Rashbam on this verse.   Also see Rashbam on Deut. 27:15 and Ibn Ezra on 17:14-19.

[3] If we count the noun shevut which is used together with the verb ve-shav.   The number seven traditionally symbolizes perfection, and the number eight supreme, supernatural perfection.

[4] See Sifre on Deut.43, p. 102; Ketubbot 110b; Nahmanides on Lev. 18:25.

[5] Thus it is rendered by Rav Saadiah Gaon.  Cf. M. Ben-Yashar, “Shuv Shevut,” in the Jubilee Volume in Honor of Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, Jerusalem 1992, pp.639-656.

[6] Cf. Deut 31:17-18.

[7] Rabbi Samet (see note 1) relates to this and has a different answer.   The classic answer is that G-d is the “primary cause” of all human actions and emotions.